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Some encouraging statistics released last week on child poverty have done little to dampen concern about the lives of our poorest tamariki, particularly those who are disabled or from Maori or Pasifika households.
The Statistics NZ data showed, in the 21 months to March last year, all the nine official measures of child poverty were trending downwards.
Great news, but the data does not cover the time of the Covid-19 crisis which, as Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft put it, has been a "game-changer".
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who has made it her mission to halve the number of children living in poverty over 10 years, has been upbeat about the statistics. She says while the Government recognises there is more work to do, she estimates more than 100,000 households with children are on average $100 a week better off as a result of the full range of changes made to date.
These changes include the $5.5billion families package incorporating various increased payments and the winter energy payment, lifting the minimum wage significantly, making doctors’ visits free for under 14-year-olds, indexing benefits to average wage growth, expanding the free lunches in schools programme, and raising the amount beneficiaries can earn before their benefits reduce.
It was pleasing to see the decrease in the number of families experiencing material hardship. Such hardship could involve going without basics such as fresh fruit and vegetables, putting off a visit to the doctor because of a lack of money or not being able to pay power bills on time.
One in nine children lived in households reporting material hardship in the year ended June 2020 compared with about one in eight in the year ended June 2018.
Whether all that reduction has been due to Government measures might be debatable. Child Poverty Action Group spokeswoman Prof Innes Asher drew attention to what she called the mushrooming of private charity, particularly major increases in food banks in recent years.
The statistics showed material hardship rates for Maori and Pasifika families, and families with a disabled child or caregiver were still well above the national rates.
Disposable income had increased, but this was not evenly distributed — the poorest households’ income was not enough to keep up with increases seen for the average New Zealand household.
Prof Asher says 168,000 children are still in the severest income poverty.
With charities reporting increases in the people they are seeing who are facing real hardship following the Covid-19 pandemic, there are ongoing concerns that the Government approach continues to be too incremental and piecemeal.
Measures such as the benefit boost of $25 a week last March and the doubling of the winter energy payment last year, which are not reflected in the latest statistics’ release, are not seen as enough to make a real impact in the lives of many beneficiaries, particularly those struggling to find affordable housing.
Repeated calls for significant rises in benefit rates and allowing beneficiaries to access all family assistance have not been heeded so far.
The cost of living has been growing at a faster rate for beneficiaries than for non-beneficiaries.
In the year to December 2020, inflation for beneficiary households increased by 1.9%, compared with an overall annual inflation increase of 0.7%.
Rent made up almost 30% of household spending for beneficiaries compared with the average of around 13%.
All will be able to agree with the Prime Minister that there is still much to be done, but whether this year’s Budget will contain measures bold enough to make a dramatic difference to the poorest families in the post-Covid climate remains to be seen.