Frustration over Government welfare inaction

Analysis: On World Children’s Day, Jacinda Ardern opened a children’s playground on Parliament’s front lawn. She says it’s a symbol of her commitment to kids, but those at the coalface say the Government is falling short. Laura Walters reports

On World Children’s Day, dozens of kids gathered on Parliament’s lawn for the opening of the new children’s playground – mostly, they were there for the slide, and Zappo the Magician.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who designated herself the minister responsible for child poverty reduction, said this was the only country in the world to put a playground on the front lawn of its house of representatives.

She told the group of hi-vised, sunhat-wearing pre-schoolers this was symbolic, and showed the value her Government placed on the country’s tamariki.

Ardern also repeated her promise, and the thing she says drew her to politics: to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a kid.

But a rising chorus of voices is calling for the Government to do more as children and families continue to struggle. And doing more, means spending more. 

Those voices include the Children’s Commissioner, UNICEF, the Child Poverty Action Group, members of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, and Labour’s confidence and supply partner, the Green Party.

They say the Government’s response to the Welfare Expert Advisory report – which it commissioned – has been lacking, and more needs to be spent to lift benefits.

There is a $7.5 billion surplus saved up for a rainy day, and as the Children’s Commissioner says: this is a rainy day.

“Lifting families out of income poverty is the circuit breaker for everything else.”

In a flurry of press releases timed for World Children’s Day - marking the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - government ministers, including Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni, Children’s Minister Tracey Martin, and Ardern (as Minister for Child Poverty Reduction) laid out what they've done so far to help the country’s poorest and most vulnerable children.

They included a list of numbers (from the Families Package Monitoring Report) to demonstrate how families, and kids, are better off, largely thanks to the $5.5 billion Families Package, which was announced in the Government’s first 100 days: 1 million New Zealanders received the Winter Energy payment; 6000 more families received the Families Tax Credit (up to 220,600 families), which includes a boost in weekly payments ; 13,500 carers received the new Clothing Allowance; those receiving the Accommodation Supplement got more (from an average of $71 a week to $98 a week.

By the time the Families Package is fully rolled out at the end of the 2021 financial year, 385,000 families with children would be better off by an average of $75 a week.

The Government said it remained on track to lift 50,000 to 74,000 children out of poverty by the 2021 financial year, based on the poverty measure of people earning less than 50 percent of the median household income after housing costs, and adjusted for inflation.

We won’t see the first update on how the Government is tracking on its child poverty reduction targets until February. When the targets and measures were created last year, 250,000 children (22.8 percent) of the country’s children were in poverty (according to this measure).

There are other things the Government has done, which it says will help Kiwi kids, including giving decile 1-7 schools the option of taking a $150 per child payment from the Government in exchange for doing away with its school donation schemes. They have also scrapped NCEA fees.

Then there is the free school lunches plan, and extended GP visits, extended nurses in schools up to decile 4, and increased paid parental leave.

Big budget surpluses are supposed to be for rainy days - what more severe storm than children in poverty? Photo: Lynn Grieveson

These numbers and lists of initiatives are a good start but there are some obvious issues.

Firstly, it’s hard to make real sense of the numbers. There are a lot of statistics and measurements –many of which are new measures - making it difficult to track progress over time, and it's hard to draw meaningful conclusions and measure progress when you’re not comparing apples with apples.

Then some changes take years to flow through, and if they're not properly designed or targeted, they will not have the intended impact.

On the flipside, there are plenty of numbers that paint a dire picture. Numbers are never black and white, and there's always a number to be found to suit a purpose - on both sides of the argument.

This Christmas, the Salvation Army expects to house 50 percent more families than last year; the number of food parcels given out and the number of monthly hardship grants for food have also risen (by 116 percent).

Fuel costs have risen in some areas, including Auckland – something that disproportionately hits lower income families, who have little discretionary spend; and the average weekly rent cost has jumped by $50.

There are 23,000 more people on the jobseeker benefit, and 8000 more children are living in homes receiving the benefit - 60 percent of those living in hardship are in benefit-dependent homes.

Then there are the discrepancies between what we are hearing from the Government on its progress, and what those on the frontlines are saying.

“We can’t fiddle, as it were, while Rome burns; while 100,000 children remain in disadvantage. Change and action is urgently required."

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft did not hold back when talking to TVNZ’s Q&A about this Government’s record on helping children.

Becroft described the Government’s response to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report as “weak, supine, passive”.

The response was not the widespread change promised.

“We can’t fiddle, as it were, while Rome burns; while 100,000 children remain in disadvantage. Change and action is urgently required,” he told Q&A.

UNICEF NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn said for a certain sector of society, New Zealand probably always would be a good place to be a child.

“However, there are many excluded from the ‘Kiwi dream childhood’'."

Fewer families could afford a home, they did not have educational choices, or the access to technology, and for Maori and Pasifika children the issues and poor outcomes are compounded

The Government was delivering on the “pre-conditions” of improving on its record of fulfilling its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child. “But decisive, substantive action is needed now."

Significant income increases for the poorest families, particularly those on benefits, would make the single biggest difference to housing, access to education and health, Maidaborn said.

“Lifting families out of income poverty is the circuit breaker for everything else.”

Self-appointed Minister for Child Poverty Reduction Jacinda Ardern says her commitment is to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Green Party-Labour confidence and supply agreement promises an overhaul of the welfare system.

It began with the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which came up with 42 recommendations. Then things stalled.

The Government is implementing three of the recommendations in the report: the indexation of main benefits to the average wage, doing away with sanctioning those who refuse to name the other parent, and increasing the number of frontline staff.

It’s estimated the indexation of benefits would amount to an average of $11 extra a week by 2023, but it's estimated those on benefits are worse off by $70 a week compared to pre ‘mother of all budgets’.

Earlier in the week, Sepuloni signalled to the Child Poverty Action Group Summit that the Government didn’t have any other big spends planned in this area, this term.

Instead, she emphasised the importance of an all-of-Government approach, which included housing and mental health.

It will take an all-of-Government approach, but delivering on three of 42 recommendations from its welfare advisory group is not what this Government promised. And it’s not what the Greens, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, and other advocates are pushing for.

The Green Party is clearly frustrated, and Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson was quick to send out a statement calling for further action, following the minister’s speech .

The Greens say they will continue to push for more changes, along the lines of what the advisory group recommended – namely increasing benefits – but the chances of the Government delivering something that looks anything like an overhaul before election day next year, is slim-to-nil.

“They talked big and they haven’t delivered. And unfortunately this is a group of vulnerable New Zealanders, with challenges, who deserve to be supported in their time of need, and I really think the Government is failing them.”

National Party social development spokesperson Louise Upston said rather than the Government delivering on its promise to overhaul to the welfare system, “it’s fair to say it’s just tinkered at the edges”.

There had been very little delivered for the country’s most vulnerable, she said.

The Government had multiple levers it could pull, including increasing benefits and lowering the cost of living, to help those families doing it tough.

Meanwhile, more needed to be done to support people into work, to help them gain a better income and stability.

A lot of work went into the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report and there was clearly frustration at the lack of immediate action, Upston said.

“They talked big and they haven’t delivered. And unfortunately this is a group of vulnerable New Zealanders, with challenges, who deserve to be supported in their time of need, and I really think the Government is failing them.”

A chorus of voices, including those of the Green Party, are calling on the Government to do more to overhaul the welfare system. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Meanwhile, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) had a similar message to everyone else: Now is the time for making a plan to implement the recommendations for the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report, and to make sure Kiwi families have the means to have a good standard of housing, living and enough food.

To do that, the Government needs to be prepared to spend more.

Many of those who spoke to Newsroom pointed to the Budget surplus.

CPAG economics advisor associate professor Susan St John said the Families Package was "nowhere near enough to lift the worst-off children out of poverty – and this really should be acknowledged”.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report discussed the “broken” welfare state and the need for additional annual spending of $5.2b, but there didn’t seem to be any talk of a plan for implementing the changes needed to help families struggling the most.

CPAG said putting the building blocks in place to clean up an inherited mess was a very important part of the process to achieve the targets set for poverty reduction. But what was most important now were the "urgent" next steps toward ensuring every child had the opportunity to thrive and to reach their potential by ensuring all families were properly resourced.

St John said some tangible, short-term changes the Government could make included: reinstating the Winter Energy Payment to make it a permanent increase to benefits; joining up the In-Work Tax Credit to the main Family Tax Credit, assisting the transition to work by increasing the benefit threshold for earned income; and individualising the benefit payments and not penalising couples.

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