PM announces new child poverty targets

Jacinda Ardern speaks to pupils at Taieri College. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Jacinda Ardern speaks to pupils at Taieri College last year. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
A new child poverty law will require governments to set 10-year targets to reduce child poverty, adopt a child wellbeing strategy and report on progress each year.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set out the details of the Child Poverty Reduction Bill today, saying the hope was to secure long-term political consensus on child poverty and ensure children were at the centre of policy-making.

The bill requires a government to set long term 10-year targets as well as shorter term milestones to reach every three years and to report on progress in every Budget. It will also have to assess the impact of that year's Budget on child poverty.

Under a child wellbeing strategy, a government will also have to set 'actions' to improve child poverty and wellbeing for those under 18, in particular at-risk and poor households.

Children must be consulted as part of setting that strategy.

The Government has estimated between 150,000 and 290,000 children are living in poverty with about 80,000 in severe hardship.

Ardern said that was not good enough.

"For a country with relative abundance, New Zealand has the opportunity and the moral obligation to ensure children are free from the burden of poverty."

The bill will set four main measures for child poverty to be assessed by – those in households on less than 50 per cent of the median income both before and after housing costs, those in material hardship such as the inability to afford basic goods, and the level of persistence of poverty.

There are also six supplementary measures aimed at giving data of the different levels of poverty, ranging from those on less than 60 per cent of the median income to those on less than 40 per cent.

Statistics New Zealand will be charged with reporting on all ten of the measures of child poverty.

Jacinda Ardern - pictured at the hikoi against child poverty in 2014 - says the issue was one of...
Jacinda Ardern - pictured at the hikoi against child poverty in 2014 - says the issue was one of the reasons she entered politics. Photo:NZ Herald
Child poverty was one of the main themes of the election campaign and Ardern took the job of Minister for Child Poverty Reduction herself.

The legislation marks the end of the first 100 days programme Ardern set out when she took over government.

Ardern said the aim was to get a consensus on child poverty between political parties. It provided a framework for defining and reporting on child poverty but left governments free to set actual targets and mechanisms to achieve them.

She expected to release Labour's actual targets soon, saying it would be in time for the public to make submissions on them.

Ardern said Labour's 'Families Package' was already in place to lift incomes once it took effect from July.

Treasury was still calculating how many children that would lift out of poverty after admitting its original estimate of 88,000 was incorrect and too high.

That package includes a payment for newborn babies and higher Working for Families and Accommodation Supplement payments.

National still undecided on the bill

It is unclear whether National will support the bill.

National leader Bill English was briefed by officials from the PM's office earlier today and said it would take a couple of weeks for National to digest and make a final decision on whether to support it.

He said Labour was yet to persuade him Labour had a better way of addressing the problem than National.

He repeated his reservations about Labour dropping the former National Government's system of setting specific targets on social issues for the public service, saying the child poverty bill focused solely on income levels rather than the parallel issue of social dysfunction.

English said he sought to keep the public service targets in his response to Ardern's initial approach for support last December "but the government went ahead and abolished those targets after they'd seen the letter."

"So they haven't done a good job of trying to persuade us. They have to persuade us they have got a better way of doing it than what was in place and so far they haven't managed to do that."

Ardern denied Labour had not made a genuine effort to engage National, saying she had provided details of the bill more than a month before it was due to be released.

She said other groups had provided feedback and changes were made on the basis of it but National had not.

"But all is not lost, we've still got the select committee process so if there are issues they want to talk through then, we're open to that."

The exchange of letters between Ardern and English shows Ardern had asked for support, saying "there is a real opportunity to show New Zealanders that we can agree on the importance of this issue."

She said it was a framework that would allow room for different priorities and approaches on how to address the issue.

English's response was to accept a briefing for the new year and urge Ardern to retain the public service targets, saying they had created a "step change" in the way the public service worked.

Ardern on an end to the 'political back and forth'

Ardern says she hopes legislated child poverty measures will put an end to the 'political back and forth' around what it is and allow governments to get on to deal with it.

She is yet to say what Labour's target will be. She said she had initially intended to include those targets in the bill, but withdrew that after feedback that the best way to get political consensus was to leave future governments to set its own targets.

Ardern, who has taken on the ministerial role of Child Poverty Reduction for herself, said that issue had motivated her to get into politics.

"There is no doubt that material hardship and the income a family lives on is one of the key determinants of child wellbeing."

She said there was a range of things but it would not ignore the role income played.

"What we want to do is get around the back and forth of what child poverty measures are in this country and allow us to be held to account."

Ardern said the measures proposed would give a clear picture of poverty by measuring income and the ability to afford basic goods.

The only new measure was around 'persistent' poverty - which would measure how long a family remained in poverty.

She said a past study of that showed poverty was most persistent when the children were youngest and would help steer where governments should target support.

Ardern said the Public Finance Act would be amended to require reporting on child poverty.

She said she acknowledged Opposition criticism that the bill itself did not set out how it would resolve child poverty, but said that would come when the government did its child wellbeing strategy.

She said the bill was intended to ensure governments were held to account. She had not released Labour's targets for reduction at the same time as the bill because she wanted other parties to assess whether to support it based on the bill itself, rather than Labour's targets.

One of those targets would be released later this week.

The bill would be tabled in Parliament tomorrow. Ardern said collecting that information would give a clearer picture of how many children were in poverty and what that looked like.

"What this bill is saying is we are not afraid to be held to account."

Ardern said the collection of the data required would come at a cost and that would be part of a Budget bid for Statistics.

Ardern said the child wellbeing strategy would be universal but ruled out a massive expansion of Working for Families.

Ardern said the two biggest changes in child poverty in New Zealand had come with the benefit system and when Working for Families was introduced.

"That tells us when a government makes decisions it can have a big impact."

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