23 Feb 2021

Children still living in poverty but number of whānau struggling to provide the basics drops - Stats NZ

7:56 pm on 23 February 2021

There has been little annual change in the number of children living in poverty across most measures, but there has been a drop in the number of whānau struggling to provide the basics.

Boy and girl drawing with chalk home orphan child dream. children paint on the pavement. happy childhood on the street. isolation out.

Photo: 123RF

Stats NZ has just released the latest official child poverty figures, for the year ended June 2020.

The numbers come from the household economic survey, which had to stop collecting data when the country went into lockdown.

That means they provide a picture of child poverty before the pandemic.

Stats NZ said all nine child poverty measures showed downward trends compared to two years ago.

However, year-on-year, the changes are less significant on some measures.

While material hardship measures - which looks at the ability of families to provide essentials, such as shoes, or the ability to pay for doctor's visits - decreased compared to 2019, low-income measures were relatively unchanged, Stats NZ said.

One in nine children were living in material hardship, down from one in eight a year earlier.

In the year ended June 2020, about one in seven children lived in households with less than 50 percent of the median equivalised disposable income before housing costs, or 14.6 percent, down slightly on the one in six reported in 2018, or 16.5 percent.

On the after housing costs measure, 18.2 percent of children were living in poverty in 2020, compared to 22.8 percent in 2018.

The data showed that poverty rates for Māori and Pacific children were higher across almost all measures, compared with all children.

For the year ended June 2020, almost one in five Māori children lived in households experiencing material hardship, and for Pacific children this was one in four.

Māori children made up nearly half of the annual fall in the number of children in material hardship. The rates, across all other measures, remained relatively unchanged from June 2019.

For the first time, Stats NZ has also been able to report statistics for households with disabled people.

They show that disabled children and children in household where someone is disabled are more likely to be in poverty.

Nearly one in five disabled children lived in material hardship - more than double the rate of non-disabled children.

Similarly, nearly one in five children who lived in a household where at least one person was disabled lived in material hardship.

When Jacinda Ardern came to power in 2017, she made lifting thousands of children out of poverty one of the key priorities of her prime ministership.

Child poverty reduction targets were set in law and initiatives including the Families Package, the Winter Energy Payment and the Best Start payment were rolled out, along with some changes to the welfare system and the minimum wage.

Figures for the year ended June 2019, showed some improvement in child poverty rates across seven of the nine measures - though Stats NZ said it was not statistically significant.

Despite that, prior to the pandemic, the government looked on track to hit its three and 10-year targets.

Support 'can't be one-off' - Children's Commissioner

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the downward trend in child poverty rates was good news, but more action was needed.

"If we're going to really going to hit child poverty on the head, we will need to have sustained, continuous, bold and ongoing packages and commitment," Becroft said.

"It can't be one-off, it can't be tinkering around the edges," he said.

Children's Commissioner, Andrew Becroft

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says the impacts of the pandemic on poverty rates is a concern. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Since the pandemic, the number of people on the benefit has increased, more people have needed food grants from Work and Income and the social housing waitlist has ballooned.

Becroft said that was a concern.

"It's almost certain, beyond argument, that the situation is worse at the frontline for families that are struggling than this, food banks increasing, everything we hear is that it's tougher."

Child Poverty Action Group spokesperson Janet McAllister said the number of disabled children living in material hardship was particularly concerning - one in five, according to the statistics.

"That's because the income support here doesn't acknowledge properly the increased expenses that go with having to live with a disability."

Children's advocates are eagerly awaiting more announcements from the government about the next steps to reduce the number of families living in poverty, in the wake of Covid-19.

Jacqui Southey from Save the Children said a recent poll showed there was public support for boosting benefits and the government had indicated child wellbeing remained one of its top priorities.

"Taken together, there's room there for the government to make greater movement to ensure that we don't see a significant downturn in child poverty rates, post-Covid."

Political reaction

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said progress was being made.

"The fact that there is any child in poverty should be distressing for all of us, but what we've done is set ourselves ambitious goals to reduce child poverty," Ardern said.

"What this shows is that one of the goals we've achieved before we were even due to, the rest we need to keep making progress, but the fact that it's trending down across all measures is something I want to see continue."

Ardern said there was "no question" there was more work to be done, particularly for Māori and Pasifika children.

"We use measures to tell us those who are not just in poverty, but in deep, entrenched poverty, so thinking about policies that will make the biggest difference to those groups will, for me, will be next on the agenda."

But Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said this was no cause for celebration or congratulations, and the government was "not doing enough" to pull Māori children out of poverty.

"Stop leaving us as the 'one plus', make us the priority, address the vulnerabilities and the fact that we need help. Data can say what it wants but what we're hearing on the ground, and certainly the advocates are, is that our whānau, our tamariki are not getting enough support."

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Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said it was "simply not good enough" that Māori, Pasifika and disabled children were being left behind.

She renewed her party's call for a guaranteed minimum income.

"We've been very clear that there's a solution that can be had, which is a guaranteed minimum income of $325. It would immediately help to raise nearly all whānau above the poverty line."

Davidson said she was concerned that the impacts of Covid-19 would exacerbate the harm to these families even further.

Meanwhile, ACT leader David Seymour said material hardship was not reducing at a rate that would see the government reach its target of halving child poverty by 2028.

"Jacinda Ardern's heart is in the right place but her policies aren't really working. It stands to reason that those most likely to be positively impacted by the government's efforts probably already have been", he said.

Seymour said the reality did not match the government's rhetoric, with the data showing "big problems" for Pasifika and Māori children.

"And this government's answer is to have Māori wards on councils and give us another holiday. At some point, this government has to start taking real, tangible steps to solve the deep problems of Māori poverty, and stop giving us gestures that are actually divisive."

National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston said if the government wanted to reduce child poverty, it must get more people off social welfare and into jobs.

She said social welfare numbers have increased since the first lockdown, so it was likely more children were living in households doing it tough.

"What we want to see is a greater focus and priority and urgency of the government to help those families get into employment, and a result of that there'll be fewer children in benefit-dependent homes."

The government's child poverty reduction targets

By 2020/21:

  • Reduce the number of children living in poverty, before housing costs, from 16 percent (2017/18) to 10 percent
  • Reduce the number of children living in poverty, after housing costs, from 23 percent to 19 percent
  • Reduce material hardship from 13 percent down to 10 percent

By 2027/28:

  • Reduce the number of children living in poverty, before housing costs, from 16 percent (2017/18) to 5 percent
  • Reduce the number of children living in poverty, after housing costs, from 23 percent to 10 percent
  • Reduce material hardship from 13 percent down to 6 percent

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