15 Dec 2015

Govt insists it's not ignoring child poverty

7:46 pm on 15 December 2015

The government has made a concerted effort to address all of the issues that contribute to child hardship, according to Social Development Minister Anne Tolley.

Anne Tolley

Anne Tolley Photo: RNZ

Mrs Tolley was responding to the annual child poverty report released today by the Children's Commissioner, which said almost a third of the country's children now lived in poverty - an increase of 45,000 since last year.

Mrs Tolley said there was a significant number of children living in conditions that were worse than what the government would want and it did have to take notice of that.

She said that was why the government had lifted the benefit by $25 a week, increased working for families and child care assistant rates, as well as other supporting other initiatives like free doctors' visits for under 13s.

One of the government's big pushes was to get people off benefits, she said.

"Over the last three years we've seen over 42,000 fewer children living in those very low income benefit-dependent families, so I think it's been a very concerted effort by government to address right across all the complex areas that contribute to child hardship," Mrs Tolley said.

But Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the latest update from the Children's Commissioner was alarming and the government's approach was failing.

She said officials told the government the benefit increase would not do anything to alleviate poverty, and the push to move beneficiaries into work just increased the number of children from working families who were living in poverty because wages were so low.

"The gap between the most rich and the most poor is increasing significantly and if you are one of the poorest children living in New Zealand you are six times as likely to die from a poverty-related condition, then if you are one of the richer children. That's not a society that anyone in this country wants to live in."

Labour's children spokesperson Jacinda Ardern said there would continue to be shocking statistics on child poverty unless peoples' incomes were raised.

The lift in benefits was welcome but poverty was so severe the minimal increase would not make a difference, she said.

"Being in work does not mean that you'll be free from poverty. A good chunk of the families that are experiencing poverty are working families," she said.

"So, again, making sure that we move away from a low-wage economy and low incomes is ultimately the goal that we should all be working for if we're going to resolve child poverty."

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said the report was not aimed at policy makers but he was critical of what he called the government's ad hoc approach to the problem.

Need to 're-consider spending priorities'

The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine said the report highlighted a worsening public health issue that would create an ongoing cost burden on the country over the long-term.

The college's president Dr Caroline McElnay said a lot of government spending went towards addressing the issues associated with poverty but more needed to be done to reduce the level of child poverty in the first place.

"This will require society to re-consider its spending priorities. Are our children, and the future of our society - important or not?"

The college wants a national, cross-sectoral strategy to reduce child poverty, embedded in legislation, with measurable targets that were monitored.

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