19 Nov 2019

Child poverty, welfare: government inaction frustrates advocacy groups

12:15 pm on 19 November 2019

The government has failed to take any immediate measures to fix child poverty, a member of an expert group set up to help reduce it says.

Work and Income offices

Work and Income offices Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group submitted a report to the government in February but speakers at the Child Poverty Action Group summit in Wellington said it has essentially been ignored.

More than 100,000 children are facing the kind of poverty that puts them into an intergenerational struggle, speakers said.

It was one of the many messages relayed to those attending the Child Poverty Action Group summit, but as bar graphs and pie charts were displayed on the screen explaining just how poorly New Zealand was performing on a global scale, there was frustration nothing is changing.

That was underlined by Professor Innes Asher, a pediatrician and member of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group that created the Whakamana Tangata report.

She said nine months on from the report and its 120 detailed recommendations, just three would have been implemented.

"It seems nothing has actually happened that's actually making a significant change in the welfare system to most people in the nine months since our report came out," she said.

"It seems to be something which hasn't been regarded as important by the government, certainly as a barometer of what's in the public eye."

Susan St John is one of the founding members of the Child Poverty Action Group and said there should have been a huge amount of activity since the report was submitted.

"What should have been happening is we should have had forums and conferences and discussions between the different ministries, with the public, with the people affected, and we should have much more idea of what's actually in the report and what should have been critiqued," Ms St John said.

"I think it's very hard to tell what the government is actually working on here."

The Social Development Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, made a brief appearance at the summit, making a 20 minute speech before leaving without taking any questions.

She said she could not discuss any immediate government plans due to budget sensitivities, but she did outline some longer-term goals.

She said there would be a focus in the next two to four years on resetting the foundations of the welfare system, increasing income support and reducing debt, strengthening and expanding employment services, and improving support services for disabled people and their carers.

Ms Sepuloni said the government planned after that to simplify the income support system, review housing and childcare supports, and align the welfare system with other agencies.

"Despite the fact that those things make up the key parts of the medium to long term programme, that doesn't mean that those areas won't be touched on in some way in the short term as well."

The Green Party also weighed in, saying everyone should have what they need to thrive, and yet it was clear from the experts' report that incomes were not enough to live on.

"The Welfare Expert Advisory Group said it best when they said 'too many people are leading desperate lives with seriously inadequate incomes," co-leader Marama Davidson said.

"We have a responsibility to make sure our social safety net is strong, not just for those who rely on it currently, but for all New Zealanders. This includes a rise in incomes, better access to state and community housing, and removing excessive sanctions.

"We are delighted that the expert report provides such a clear blueprint for change. Now we need to focus on delivering it."

Susan St John said she feared that by the time the government announced useful changes to the welfare system, there would be no guarantee the government would still be in power and able to deliver on its promises.

"We're calling for an emergency package because it's not good enough to wait until next year and find out in the budget that there might be something that will be an election debate, and then find well, actually, it's only if Labour get back in that we're going to get anything at all."

Ms Sepuloni previously said she expected to take a plan for the overhaul of the welfare system to Cabinet before the end of the year.

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