Fewer Kiwi children living in poverty but disparity between Māori and Pākehā remains

8:58 pm on 6 December 2022
The rates of child poverty have got worse since the 1980s.

Photo: 123RF

At just 22 years old, Walter has weathered enough trauma to fill several lifetimes.

He has lived on the streets, been in and out of prison, and has attempted suicide multiple times.

"I was on the streets for years," he said.

"Stealing, fighting, and smoking drugs every day."

Poverty, what he calls a "generational curse", gave him nowhere else to turn.

Now, he hopes to save others from the path he struggled to escape from.

Walter is one of many kids left behind, Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers says.

Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers.

Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers. Photo: Felix Walton/RNZ

Eivers welcomes progress on child poverty, but says more must be done.

"Good work has been done, but we cannot afford to take our foot off the accelerator," Eivers said, reflecting on the results of her office's 2022 Child Poverty Monitor, released earlier today in Māngere, south Auckland.

About 187,300 Kiwi children live in poverty, 16 percent of the population. That was well below the 2021 target of 18.8 percent, a clear achievement - on paper.

But a demographic breakdown raises questions. Just 14 percent of Pākehā kids were living in poverty, compared to 17.8 percent of Māori kids. That gap isn't new, Eivers said, but that does not make it any less alarming.

"That's going to impact the whole of society," she said.

"It'll cost more in the health system, more in the education system, and those young ones will, as they grow into adults, be disenfranchised and won't be able to live their best lives."

Māhera Maihi, founder of youth-focused charity Mā Te Huruhuru and a member of Manaaki Rangatahi, witnessed first-hand the struggles of living below the poverty line.

"[My dad] was part of a gang, called the Storm Troopers, and that was the reality for us growing up," she said.

"We were gang-life kids. I really did think that, when I was younger, I was gonna be a gang member's wife."

Maihi said she and her 11 siblings were rarely a priority for her parents.

"I played saxophone in high school, music was my therapy," she said.

"When I came home one day, the saxophone was gone and I looked at my mum and she was smoking something ... I won't say what.

"Slowly our house, the material things went down and down and down, until eventually we were living on bread and milk crates."

Lead co-ordinator of Manaaki Rangatahi Bianca Johanson.

Lead co-ordinator of Manaaki Rangatahi Bianca Johanson. Photo: Felix Walton/RNZ

Bianca Johanson, from Manaaki Rangatahi, said New Zealand was failing to provide the basics to its children.

"We asked the children: what makes you happy, and what gives you a good quality of life? And [the answers] were really basic things," she said.

"It's sad to see that in Aotearoa we're still not able to live up to giving the basics to our children."

Commissioner Frances Eivers said those experiences had serious implications for children.

"The impact is often underestimated," she said.

"Insecurity and stress, hunger and lack of heating, stigma and shame, difficulty accessing education and health services can all affect a child's development, emotional resilience, and the ability to navigate relationships and build trust."

The most significant inequities were in food insecurity.

Eleven percent of Pākehā children lived in homes that would "sometimes or often" run out of food, but that experience was true for 26 percent of Māori kids.

For Pasifika households, the statistic jumped to 37 percent - more than a third.

Eivers said change had to happen.

"We need to look at how we can better support all whānau because currently services aren't reaching them," she said.

"Without making significant change, we are currently forcing the next generation to pick up the pieces left by our policy choices.

"This is not fair and New Zealand must do better."

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