Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills is laying down a
challenge to New Zealanders today - to shift support from
older, middle-income families to give more to our youngest and
Dr Wills, a Hawkes Bay paediatrician, is releasing the first
of what he plans to be an annual update on trends in child
poverty and poverty-related illnesses such as breathing
difficulties and skin infections.
The update shows that child poverty roughly doubled in the
early 1990s and has not come down much since, and that the
rate of child hospitalisations with poverty-related illnesses
rose and fell in parallel with poverty and has risen again
since the global recession hit in 2007 to a record high last
The strongest increases in the past 12 years have been in
asthma and bronchiolitis, which mainly affects babies. Dr
Wills said the poorest tenth of infants were 10 times more
likely than the richest tenth to be hospitalised with
"Any paediatrician in the country will tell you that the bulk
of our work is with very poor children who are preschoolers
admitted with diseases of poverty, in particular chest and
skin infections," he said.
"It's not just a matter of income poverty. What matters is
children in very poor families in crowded, cold and damp
houses. There is an income issue, there is a housing supply
issue and there is a housing quality issue."
An expert group appointed by Dr Wills last year made 78
recommendations, starting with targets to reduce child
poverty, a plan for how to reduce it, and annual monitoring
of five official poverty measures.
The Government has picked up some recommendations, such as a
housing quality "warrant of fitness"initially for state
houses. But it refused to adopt official poverty measures or
targets, so Dr Wills has used J R McKenzie Trust charitable
funding and Otago University experts to monitor his own
He said the goal was to inform the public about the extent of
child poverty to build support for refocusing public spending
on those most in need.
"A lot of the expert group recommendations were cost-neutral
- taking the existing spending and investing it where it
makes the most difference," he said.
"It means some people would lose entitlements and it would go
particularly to children who are younger and poorer.
"Those are win-lose political choices and no matter who is in
power they will only occur if there is a very strong public
understanding and support for those changes."
The expert group recommended first raising the maximum family
tax credit for children under 15 from the current $92.73 a
week to the same as the rate for children aged 16 and over,
$101.98, and then gradually raising the tax credit further
for children under 5.
Dr Wills' advocacy manager Donna Provoost said the money
could be found by changing the income thresholds and
abatement rates for the in-work tax credit, which currently
gives tax credits to working families earning up to $89,500
with two children or $124,700 with four children.
"You could actually take some out of the in-work tax credit
and put it into the family tax credit and put more money into
the younger children. That alone would have a huge impact,"
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the Government
already measured child poverty.
"This monitor is based entirely on Ministry of Social
Development data, but just repackaged in a different way,"
"I'm incredibly proud of this Government's record, we have
prioritised children, particularly those most vulnerable and
we're taking a thoughtful and strategic approach to tackling
complex social issues."
The report has prompted calls for action among a number of
It showed it was time to act boldly on poverty issues, said
Child Poverty Action Group's Professor Innes Asher.
"... these statistics show its ghastly face - how sick our
children are - with many harmed forever by preventable
diseases," she said.
"It is not just children and families who bear the cost of
these illnesses through loss of health, education and work
opportunities, but society as a whole, as we are paying for
the care of children who should not be sick as well as the
lost productivity of their parents."
The Asthma Foundation said "action needs to be taken now" to
help prevent such poverty-related respiratory conditions in
children, especially as New Zealand has one of the world's
highest rates of asthma.
"We are asking the Government to improve incomes for all
low-income families with children, to develop a housing
strategy that will result in all children being well housed,
and to improve access to primary health care for all New
Zealanders," said chief executive Angela Francis.
"Some people may ask whether we can afford to do these things
in tough economic times; the real question is, how can we
Labour's children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said the
findings were a "critical call for action".
"Forty percent of children in poverty are living in a
household where their parents are in work, but they aren't
earning enough to get by," she said.
"Indifference isn't an option any more"
- By Simon Collins of the NZ Herald