Susan St John: A good start on tackling child poverty

Susan St John, Honorary Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland and spokeswoman for the Child Poverty Action Group, gives her view of what the new government could mean for New Zealand’s most vulnerable citizens

Jacinda Ardern’s decision to take on the role of Minister for Child Poverty Reduction is the best news low income families have had for a long, long time. By giving leadership, the Prime Minister is elevating this issue in a way that we have not seen before. The symbolism of this should not be underestimated.

Child poverty is such a serious issue. It has economic consequences that resound through generations. A problem of this magnitude needs people in high places to make things happen and you don’t get much higher than Prime Minister. Her proactivity in taking this role gives a voice to those 300,000 or so Kiwi kids who live below the poverty line – kids who have had no voice for decades. We can expect children to be at the centre of policies making of all kinds and the impact on them will be visible in a way it hasn’t been up until now.

Of course, even with the Prime Minister in charge, she can’t do it on her own. Child poverty has become so entrenched, so normalised in our fair country that there are no easy or simple solutions. One of her first tasks will be to put measures in place that show the true extent of the problem. These should include a range of qualitative measures such as hospital admissions for preventable third-world diseases and use of food banks as well the standard income and hardship measures. These benchmarks will enable the government to report on progress.

One of the best places to get progress is to begin with reforming Working for Families. This tax credit scheme is the main income support mechanism for children in low income families, but it has been woefully neglected, even deliberately cut back, over the past nine years. As well, right from its inception in 2005-2007 a significant part of the payment has been denied to the very poorest children because their parents don’t meet rigid paid work criteria. It needs restoring, rebuilding and rethinking.

Labour has already put up a package which goes a long way to addressing this neglect and they have promised to work with the Greens who, pre-election, also proposed bold policies to address the poverty issue.

The new Prime Minister has taken immediate action to fulfil some of the promises made pre-election. Extending paid parental leave is one example, and is symbolic of her intention to do better for children. Nevertheless, regardless of how worthy that policy is, it will have very little impact on measures of child poverty and other immediate actions are needed.

The Child Poverty Action Group would like the government to take-up the Greens proposal to remove all the discrimination within Working for Families that deprives around 200,000 of the very poorest children of the full benefits of the package. This could be done immediately, and provide significant relief to struggling families before the stressful Christmas period. There would be time to get policy for reform of the rest of Working for Families in place by 1 April 2018.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will also need child-centred housing, health and education policies to achieve the goals of her new portfolio. None of this will be cheap and she will need the support from all sectors of society. The narrative around poverty and its causes must change for the better for attitudes to change. Under her leadership there is hope.

The benefits that flow from reducing family poverty will become more apparent for businesses and society over time. Perhaps we can look forward to a day when child poverty is as rare as elder poverty in this country. It is a matter of wanting it enough, strong leadership and active support for a new direction. Today let us take heart that that is now possible.

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