Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was never going to emerge squeaky clean from a mess of her own making last week. But she buffed her image as best she could by going on the offensive with a media statement on Friday to say her Government's main focus is addressing the causes of poverty instead of debating how it's measured.
She insisted the Government's commitment to taking action to combat poverty “is in stark contrast to the Labour Party, which just talks about how it should be measured".
The statement obviously was intended to clarify her position, because Ms Bennett complained she had been misquoted in various media as saying there is no poverty line or that she didn't acknowledge the existence of a poverty line.
Misquoted? On August 14 she was asked in Parliament how many children in New Zealand were living in poverty. Her reply was unequivocal: “There is in New Zealand no actual poverty line, so, as such, that is a very open question.” Her subsequent statement repudiated this. "What I've actually said is that there is no official measure of poverty in New Zealand, and that is correct.”
Ms Bennett did acknowledge there is poverty in New Zealand but said it was not a priority to have another measure on it. This raises questions about measures used by the Social Development Ministry when preparing the 2011 Household Incomes Report. We would like to think the minister has read it. The summary, using the jargon of specialists who do this sort of thing, says child poverty rates were the same in 2010 as in 2009 “using both the fixed line AHC measure (22%), and the 60% AHC moving line measure (25%)”.
Lindsay Mitchell, who has been researching and commenting on welfare issues since 2001, tartly described the situation as bizarre. The ministry is spending money exhaustively examining, analysing and reporting on poverty but, according to the minister, the results are not official.
Despite Ms Bennett's ardent attempts to emphasise the importance of action rather than measurement, we are left with the firm impression she does not want the public to know the magnitude of the challenge posed by poverty. This also means we will never know the magnitude of her triumph should she succeed.
- © Fairfax NZ News