Government prioritising child poverty

5:24 am on 17 October 2014

Prime Minister John Key has made dealing with child poverty a priority for his third term government.

John Key says the Government has done much to address child poverty.

John Key says the Government has done much to address child poverty. Photo: RNZ

But documents obtained by Radio New Zealand under the Official Information Act confirm the National-led Government is unlikely to change tack in the way it has responded to poverty in the past six years.

National is adamant the best way to lift children out of poverty is to get their parents back to work.

It has rejected calls from poverty campaigners and Opposition parties to provide more financial help to low income and beneficiary families.

That view was confirmed in the official advice it received last year from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and the Treasury.

MSD officials argued the Government had a credible and wide ranging programme to address poverty, which targeted its causes and effects. They said its primary approach to addressing child poverty was through promoting social mobility through paid employment driven by economic growth, clear work expectations and improved educational outcomes while ensuring people who needed help got it.

That sort of advice, which simply parroted National's own political view of the problem, prompted criticism that officials were no longer giving the Government free and frank advice. Instead they are seen as giving Government ministers recommendations they want to hear.

About 1000 marched in Auckland against child poverty.

About 1000 people marched against child poverty in Auckland earlier this month. Photo: RNZ / Nicole Pryor

While the MSD lauded the Government's approach, some of its advice and analysis was contradictory.

It conceded, for instance, that since 2007 there had been no improvement in the child poverty rate and that it was now two to three times worse than the poverty rate for people aged over 65. As well, more than half the children in hardship are still there seven years later.

The officials made the point that if the Government wanted to reduce income poverty it needed to lift the incomes of low-income families through higher wages, reduced taxes or higher transfer payments.

But they then dismissed any suggestion the Government should give more money to struggling families to help them out.

In another paper the Treasury advised the Government it had doubts a comprehensive food in schools programme would do anything to improve children's learning or help feed children who came to school hungry.

In a report to the Government early last year it said there were a range of reasons, not just lack of money, why children might turn up to school hungry. It then, though, went on to say children from low income areas were much more likely to turn up at school hungry than other other children. But it still argued feeding children in schools was unlikely to be effective.

"Evaluations of school food programmes do not indicate that food in schools programmes are necessarily effective at achieving their intended outcomes. For example, a 2012 Auckland University study found a New Zealand breakfast programme had no statistically significant effect on attendance and no effect on academic achievement or student conduct."

But the Auckland University study shows Treasury left out analysis which said there might be better results if the programmes were used more frequently.

Again, the Treasury advice fitted with the Government's political imperatives.

Forced to release reports

The reports came to light after former Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was finally forced to release them to Radio New Zealand under the Official Information Act. The advice was given to ministers in response to the Children Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group's report outlining recommendations on how to solve child poverty.

Radio New Zealand made the request for copies of the officials' advice in May last year but the documents were only released early this month after repeated complaints to the Ombudsmen's Office.

John Key has conceded the Government often delays information releases when it is in its political interests to do so. Delaying the release of this advice appears to confirm the Government is sensitive to debate about child poverty.

Before Mr Key became Prime Minister he talked about a growing underclass in New Zealand and his determination to reverse that trend. Information in the documents suggests the Government is yet to make any real impact on the problem.

Next week the Governor-General delivers the Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament and this will outline the Government's broad programme for the next three years.

Just what will it say about lifting children out of poverty?

The authors of the Expert Advisory Group's report on child poverty should not hold their breath waiting for their substantive recommendations to be adopted.

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent

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