We hear a lot about child poverty and lack of action on it – how bad is the situation really? 

Child poverty.

You read about it so often, maybe you get a little desensitised to what those words mean.

Then a new report or analysis comes out, someone slaps a sensational headline on it, you read through the article and discover how bad things actually are.

Or are they?

Last week, the latest Child Poverty Monitor report revealed 235,000 children – about one in five kids – live in poverty.

In some senses, including those raw numbers, the statistic is shocking.

But it also represents progress.

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says the numbers are tracking in the right direction – particularly when it comes to the overall level of incomes.

But in other senses, little progress is being made.

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to Judge Becroft to get a measured, comprehensive stock-take on how bad things actually are for children in New Zealand; what sorts of actions, words, and principles will make a meaningful difference; and whether the public and politicians need to recalibrate their expectations of how quickly things will turn around.

Statistics and metrics

Child poverty in New Zealand is calculated through two metrics.

The first, income assessment, counts the number of children who live in households which subsist on an income less than half the median household income.

The second, a measure of material hardship, outlines 17 objects or abilities every child’s family should be able to provide – like the ability to pay an unexpected $500 bill, or a child having two pairs of shoes.

If six of those are not met, the child is considered to live in material hardship.

Becroft says the headlines speak for themselves – even if it’s not entirely bad news.

“There were goals to halve material hardship by 2028.

“The dotted line wasn’t clearly tracking in that direction – but it was for income-related poverty.

“We were cautiously optimistic that we were on track.

“In all this debate, the big issue is that the stats are 18-30 months old. We’re talking about stats from a year and a half ago. And you’d think, in a modern, Western-world country, we could get stats in a few months.”

Earlier this year, a UNICEF report said New Zealand had the 33rd-worst record on child poverty in the OECD.

But Becroft acknowledges differences in definitions and methodology can make international comparisons problematic.

Given some of the headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking 2020 is the worst time in history to be growing up in New Zealand.

Is that the case?

Becroft says it’s complicated.

“Seventy percent of New Zealand children live in relatively well-off, well looked-after, advantaged environments.

“However, there’s 20 percent who really struggle. And 10 percent who are in chronic, consistent hardship and disadvantage, which is increasingly inter-generational.

“When we score badly, relative to the rest of the world, it’s because of the extent of that 20 and 10 percent, and the depth of the disadvantage.

“Has it ever been this bad? I think we dropped the ball in 1991, when budgets were slashed [Ruth Richardson’s the mother of all budgets].”

Becroft is also calling on politicians to have some perspective and resist the temptation to politicise the issue – to form, around this issue at least, something approaching a Grand Coalition.

“Simon Bridges and Jacinda Ardern did that. The child poverty reduction legislation [of 2018] was bipartisan.

“It got near unanimity in Parliament. That was the start of a bipartisan approach, and we desperately need to take it off the political-cheap-shot agenda, and unite around children.

“Children don’t have that vote, or that influence.

“We have to be the adults in the room.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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