17 May 2013

Budget a 'missed opportunity' to tackle child poverty

9:22 pm on 17 May 2013

Child poverty groups in Christchurch are describing the Budget as empty and a missed opportunity.

Non-government organisations, charities and community groups accused the Government of ignoring the issue of child poverty.

The group Community Campaign for Food in Schools are disappointed that Finance Minister Bill English did not announce on Thursday the provision of breakfasts for children in low-decile schools.

Representatives from a range of non-government organisations gathered in Christchurch on Friday to discuss whether it did enough to tackle child poverty.

The Methodist Mission's chief executive, Mary Richardson, does not think so: she says the Government's focus in Christchurch is clearly on rebuilding the city, rather than on families.

"We've prioritised the establishment of a commercial centre over people's homes and we've thought the economic recovery is about the recovery of business as opposed to economic recovery of families and households.

"We still have families living in garages, living in cars, sharing facilities which are overcrowded."

A senior lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury also attended the meeting and says child poverty wasn't even considered in the Budget.

Dr Bronwyn Hayward says an extra $2 billion will go towards rebuilding Christchurch, but not its families.

The Pacifica Women in Christchurch group, which was also represented, says the country's housing strategy needs to be reassessed, with some homes in Christchurch accommodating three families.

Branch president Danielle O'Halloran says the Government needs to consult with communities and then implement the solutions they want and need.

Ms O'Halloran says she wanted to see full plans for a breakfast programme in low-decile schools, but that wasn't even mentioned.

The Government is expected to announce its response to the Expert Advisory Panel report on child poverty in coming weeks.

Not enough - Every Child Counts

The Budget includes $100 million to extend the home insulation programme to another 46,000 homes over three years. It also gives budgeting services another $1.5 million, offers beneficiaries grants to help buy appliances and commits money to piloting a low- and no-interest loan scheme for low-income borrowers.

Every Child Counts manager Deborah Morris-Travers says she welcomes all those measures, but not enough is being done to tackle poverty.

"We are really facing a crisis of child poverty," she says, "when we've got a quarter of the nation's children living in poverty. Some of our neediest families are not accessing the support that they need, and we need some transparency around the take-up rates of benefits and tax credits."

Ms Morris-Travers says families need more information about the assistance they are entitled to.

Families 'living together to save money'

A 37-year-old mother of five in Porirua, Tinaka Harrison, says a lot of families she knows are struggling to survive.

"There isn't enough money so they can't afford to turn on the heater and have a warm house," she says, "then the kids get sick because it's cold and they can't afford to feed them well-balanced nutritional foods."

Mrs Harrison says children are going without food and families are living together to save money.

A Porirua schoolteacher who wishes to be known only as Laura says she sees children coming to school hungry.

Darryl Evans from the Mangere Budgeting Service says the extra funding for budgeting services won't spread very far, though he says it's good news there will be a major review of the budgeting sector later this year.

However, Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says the Government has done as well as can be expected when tight finances are taken into account.

'Not one cent set aside'

Mana Movement leader Hone Harawira, who is trying to secure support for a bill on the provision of food in decile 1 and 2 schools, says the Budget ignores child poverty altogether.

Mr Harawira told Parliament he would have been happy to support any budgetary measure to help improve the situation for the country's vulnerable children - "because feeding even one child is a good idea".

He added: "Given all the positive comments from the Prime Minister over the past few days, and the Maori Party bragging about how hard they're fighting for the poor, I am bitterly disappointed to see that this Budget has set aside not one cent to deal with child poverty."

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says the Government has been working on the issue and an announcement will be made fairly soon.

Mr Harawira isn't impressed. "That's bullshit, and Paula knows it," he says.

Mr English also says new initiatives to combat poverty are still being worked on. He told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme on Friday that announcements will be made in a couple of weeks as part of a broader range of initiatives designed to "dig harder into the issues of our most disadvantaged families and our most disadvantaged children".