12 Oct 2020

'There definitely is a huge need out there': Examining Labour's record on child poverty

10:49 am on 12 October 2020

Reducing child poverty formed the centrepiece of Labour's 2017 election campaign, with leader Jacinda Ardern personally leading the charge.

But three years on, has anything got better under the coalition government? And what impact will Covid-19 have on those already struggling?

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Fautino Laban from BBM Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

It's Saturday morning at BBM Motivation in Manukau, South Auckland.

A small team has been here since 8am, packing food parcels for whānau in need.

There are boxes of food and other pantry essentials stacked against the walls, and people are pulling more boxes out of the chiller.

Each food parcel contains things like rice and pasta, tinned food, toilet paper, hand sanitiser, tea and coffee and frozen mince. Everyone also gets a big box of fresh fruit and veges.

BBM hasn't always had a foodbank - it normally offers affordable fitness classes for people in south Auckland.

But when the country went into lockdown, Fautino Laban from BBM says they couldn't ignore the need that was out there.

"We don't want to have to operate a food bank, but there definitely is a huge need out there, and we're here to help in whatever capacity we can."

There's a one-hour window for people to come and pick up their food parcel.

They drive in, pop their boot, and the team load up their car.

It's the first time for Janice - who's on the benefit - bringing up three of her grandchildren.

"I actually wasn't going to. I got pushed into it. It was a case of I don't like asking.

"You're trying to bring these kids up and things get hard. I don't want them to see that part."

Taylor has four kids - and she's trying to get by on a lot less than she's used to - about $300 less a week.

"I got made redundant in the first lockdown in June. I was on maternity leave and I was due to go back. And that's why I've come here. I'm a solo parent and this helps me a lot."

Michael and his partner Rachel are both working - they've got three kids aged 14, 13 and 9.

"With all honesty, the money [after] paying the rent and all the other [things], we can't afford to put food on the table."

Michael was embarrassed to ask for help the first time, but now it's something his family relies on.

"It helps, but not much, to be honest with you. With the food that we've got now, this will probably help us for probably two or three days, then we'll go back to square one again."

Jacinda Ardern at BBM HQ in Manukau looking at and packing food parcels.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern visiting the BBM HQ foodbank in Manukau late last month. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Like many others, Barry has got more mouths to feed at home after his sister and her family moved in.

"The cost of [her rent] was a bit too much for her and her family. She's unemployed herself, her husband's still trying to find work, but it's not as easy as it looks."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern came to power in 2017 promising to lift thousands of children out of poverty, appointing herself Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

Targets were set in law and the coalition government rolled out a raft of initiatives including the Families Package, the Winter Energy Payment and the Best Start payment.

On top of that, it made some changes to the welfare system and lifted the minimum wage.

Ardern says seven out of the nine child poverty indicators have improved under her government.

"Am I finished? Absolutely not. But every one of those children we have lifted out of poverty, that has been because we have done something to improve the incomes of their families."

Rowandale Primary school principal Karl Vasau

Rowandale Primary school principal Karl Vasau. Photo: Supplied

Food in schools helps

It's school holidays, but there's still a few dozen kids at Rowandale School in Manurewa, taking part in a school holiday programme.

A group of boys is running around the school hall trying to keep a balloon from falling to the floor, others are quietly colouring or joining in group games.

The decile 1A school has 650 students from Years 1 through to 6.

The local community is vibrant and multicultural, but principal Karl Vasau says it's no stranger to struggle.

"Our children are coming to school hungry, they are coming to school presenting with health issues in relation to their living condition or lack of resources at home to cater for them appropriately, and that is a big thing for us."

He says the $220 million of funding for the food in schools programme, to be expanded by mid- next year, could help ease the financial pressure on families - maybe allowing parents to refocus some of their finances on other areas: savings, bills, or food at home for dinner.

But it's no silver bullet.

"How is it going to address the underlying effects of why the children are in that situation in the first place?"

Food parcels at  BBM HQ in Manukau.

Food parcels being prepared at BBM in Manukau. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Stretching dollars and cents

Rosalie Grant is a community finance worker in Nelson, helping people get no and low interest loans.

While the families she sees aren't any worse off - they're not any better off either.

But she points to the doubling of the winter energy payment - in response to Covid-19 - as something that's made a real difference to people's budgets.

"The problem is that now the winter energy payment is stopping, the wage subsidy is stopping and the rent freeze is stopping. This is all happening at the same time and this is going to have the effect, we think, of another wave of problems."

Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly cited official figures showing improvements in seven of the nine measures of child poverty.

But Stats NZ says those changes are not statistically significant - and only covered the start of the coalition's term in power.

Treasury is expecting child poverty rates to increase because of Covid-19, but the full impact won't be seen in statistics until 2022 and 2023.

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