Ending child poverty can’t be partisan pursuit

Significant and sustained reductions in child poverty will need long-term cross-party support for “a range of interventions, local as well as central, at multiple levels across multiple policy domains”, says Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Public Policy Jonathan Boston.

Co-Chair of the Children’s Commissioner’s 2012 Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty, Boston was speaking on the eve of Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s Mini-Budget announcing a Families Package the Government estimates will lift 88,000 children out of poverty by 2021.

He was leading a panel discussion at Victoria to mark the fifth year of the Child Poverty Monitor (CPM), a partnership project between the Children’s Commissioner, the JR McKenzie Trust and the University of Otago.

The just-released CPM report for 2017 shows that:

— 135,000 (or 12 percent) of New Zealand children are experiencing material hardship, living in households that go without seven or more of the 17 things they need, with 70,000 of them (or six percent of New Zealand children) in households that go without nine or more of the things they need

— 290,000 (or 27 percent) of New Zealand children are experiencing income poverty, living in households with less than 60 percent of the median contemporary income

— 80,000 (or more than seven percent) of New Zealand children are experiencing severe poverty, living in both low-income households and material hardship.

Welcoming the new Government’s child poverty policies, Boston nonetheless warned: “The challenge going forward is not just to achieve a short-term reduction in some measures of poverty but to ensure that these reductions are sustained and that they have a very significant and enduring impact on New Zealand families. To achieve that is going to be quite a task.

“I am hopeful that the National Party will endorse the new Government’s legislative proposals for setting targets to reduce family poverty and will also therefore basically embrace the need for a more active approach to such areas. We will have to wait and see if that kind of support is forthcoming.

“In my nearly 18 months in the role, it seems to me that in just about everything we do all roads lead back to material disadvantage, to genuine income-related poverty, and that, with some of our less resilient families who are struggling the most, the common denominator is struggling with significant disadvantage."

— Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft

“If it is, then that will be historic. If it isn’t, then, well, the work to tackle poverty will continue. In one sense, the work will continue anyway, but it will be all the harder because at some point there will obviously be a change of Government and then if the next Government isn’t committed to maintaining low rates of poverty potentially we will be back to where we were.”

The panel discussion included Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft, who said: “In my nearly 18 months in the role, it seems to me that in just about everything we do all roads lead back to material disadvantage, to genuine income-related poverty, and that, with some of our less resilient families who are struggling the most, the common denominator is struggling with significant disadvantage.

“We could debate all day, and we won’t today, about cause or association and of course there are many families in tough situations who do really well and love and provide security for their kids. But we know that in just about every adverse life outcome we don’t want — poor health outcomes, low educational achievement, poor youth justice outcomes, mental health outcomes — there is what [Families Commissioner] Len Cook calls a social gradient […] that it gets worse as disadvantage gets worse.”

Also on the panel were Tara Officer and Te Wai Coulston, part of the McGuinness Institute sustainability think tank’s 2016 TacklingPovertyNZ workshop tour of Queenstown, Manawatu, Rotorua, Gisborne, Kaitaia and Kaikohe, an initiative to build and share ideas on tackling poverty in the districts visited.

“From our conversations, we came to some sort of understanding about the strengths of these regions and their strength came from their people,” said Officer.

Coulston spoke about the “heterogeneity of poverty” and the “face of poverty being multifaceted”.

“What we came to find was communities, facing their unique problems, came up with amazing solutions that could never be fostered centrally,” he said.

Wellington City Missioner the Rev Tric Malcolm also spoke about the need to support the resilience and resourcefulness of communities.

“It’s about having the bigger nets to catch things as well as the smaller nets to give us.”

Professor Girol Karacaoglu, Head of Victoria’s School of Government and former Chief Economist at the Treasury, took part in the TacklingPovertyNZ tour.

In the panel discussion, he referred to the seven proposals to address poverty identified by wellbeing expert Conal Smith, a Senior Associate in Victoria’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, from the nearly 250 ideas that emerged during the tour’s workshops.

“One is that you can’t solve it from the centre. The centre can support it but localism and working with the communities is the heart of the matter,” said Karacaoglu.

“As the New Zealand Initiative work has shown repeatedly, and there’s a lot of philosophy around it as well, this is a very centralised country. The social investment approach is totally misfocused in thinking you can press the button here and you can solve the problem there. That’s not how social systems work. They are complex systems and what that means is you have to go and look for the solutions in the communities.”

Policy-makers need to look at what resources should be devolved and how to do it, said Karacaoglu.

They need to ask, “‘What can we try? How can we learn? How can we make mistakes?’ Which also needs to change the political dialogue. Because a Minister of Finance getting up and saying, ‘I have no idea what causes poverty but I will run many experiments’ — he will lose the next election. So we need to change the political dialogue that it should be okay to try and fail.”

Poverty should be tackled in terms of people’s wellbeing, he said.

“Wellbeing is not a waffly term. Wellbeing is very well defined. It is basically asking the question, ‘Are you living the kind of life you have reason to value?’ If they say yes or no, that is the measure of subjective wellbeing, and that’s on the basis of which a lot of countries now — with Israel leading the way, France joining and New Zealand will join within a few years as well — are driving policy.”

Wealth distribution should encompass human, social and natural capital as well as economic, said Karacaoglu.

“It’s the distribution of wealth across a society in the broadest sense of those four capital assets that has to be the fundamental focus of public policy.”

The benefits show “it’s one of the most powerful instruments you can enter the social fabric and do”.

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