29 Oct 2014

Marginal fall in child poverty - UNICEF

1:02 pm on 29 October 2014

The Government is defending its record on tackling child poverty as a UNICEF report reveals the level has changed little in New Zealand while falling in similar-sized countries.

The report, Children of the Recession, released today looked at the impact of the global financial crisis on child wellbeing in 41 OECD and EU countries.

child poverty

Photo: 123RF

It found 76.5 million children live in poverty in those 41 most affluent countries, and in 23 countries child poverty had increased since 2008.

In New Zealand, the proportion of the country's children in poverty fell only marginally, from 18.8 percent in 2008 to 18.4 percent in 2012. The country ranks 16th overall.

Australia reduced child poverty by 6.2 percentage points, with the report saying that country's increase in spending on families had a more positive impact than New Zealand's ambitious tax cuts in 2010.

Anne Tolley.

Anne Tolley. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said it was unfair to make a comparison with Australia because that country did not go into an economic depression at the time.

"What we're seeing with them now, of course, they are starting to hedge around a recession, their unemployment rate is climbing."

Ms Tolley told Morning Report New Zealand had yet to see the effects of a $500 million package aimed at children in the last budget, and a number of other initiatives are also under way. While the Government had no target figure to reduce child poverty, reducing the number of people dependent on welfare should improve the situation, she said.

UNICEF national advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers said the report showed governments that acted quickly at the beginning of the recession and put the right policies in place did best.

"There hasn't been an explicit commitment to ending child poverty in New Zealand," she said.

"The policies that have been put in place have been quite piecemeal and really on the margins - nothing comprehensive, nothing that is systematic and sustained."

Ms Morris-Travers told Morning Report cash payments for low income families was a win-win because it protected the children from poverty while benefiting the economy by providing families with more money to spend.

Along with Australia, the countries with the biggest fall in child poverty were Chile and Poland. Norway and Finland, which are of similar size to New Zealand, cut child poverty rates by 4.3 and 3.2 percentage points respectively.

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Prime Minister John Key has said child poverty is a priorty in his third-term government. Since National took office, the government has increased the availability of food in some schools and funding to fight rheumatic fever.

Free doctors' visits will be extended to children up to the age of 13.

Free doctors' visits will be extended to children up to the age of 13. Photo: CORBIS

In this year's budget, the Government also announced it was extending free GP visits and prescriptions to children from ages 6 to 12.

But the health spokesperson for the Child Action Poverty Group and a paediatrician at Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital, Innes Asher, said families in poverty need more money.

"Free doctors visits is a help, but there is still not enough money to go around in the family to cover all the basic needs for children's health and wellbeing," she said.

"We need to have an injection of income into the families who are at the lowest level in New Zealand."

Dr Asher, who is also the head of paediatrics at Auckland University, said raising the miniumum wage at a faster rate, indexing Working for Families to the average wage and raising the sole parent support rate for those on the benefit are some of the ways to help.

For the president of Tai Tokerau Principals' Federation, Pat Newman, providing more jobs is the key.

"I do concur with the prime minister that until you get enough jobs for everyone you're really not going to get rid of poverty."

He said the Government should introduce incentives to have businesses move into cities and towns were people need jobs.

The Labour Party says New Zealand's lack of progress in reducing child poverty is because it is not a priority for the National government.

Schools should also have discretionary money per head in areas of high poverty to help pay for whatever may be needed such as shoes, clothing or a fruit garden, he said.

The UNICEF report also found the rate of youth aged between 15 and 24 who are not in education, employment or training has increased by 0.8 percentage points in New Zealand from 12.9 percent in 2008 to 13.7 percent in 2013.

According to the study, New Zealanders also feel worse about food insecurity, overall satisfaction with life and opinions on whether children have the opportunity to learn and grow every day. But it found New Zealanders have the lowest levels of stress.

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