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Bold action needed to prevent worsening of child poverty after Covid-19

Media releases

2 December 2020

 One in every five children in Aotearoa New Zealand is living in income poverty, with bold action needed to prevent Covid-19 making low income and hardship even worse, according to the latest Child Poverty Monitor.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, Otago University and the JR McKenzie Trust will launch the 2020 Child Poverty Monitor today at a special event at Parliament hosted by Prime Minister and Child Poverty Reduction Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“We all want every child in Aotearoa, no matter their background, to have the support and opportunity to flourish,” says Commissioner Becroft.

“But for the past 30 years New Zealand has knowingly excluded a large group of tamariki from that vision.  Large numbers of tamariki are still being denied what they need to thrive, a situation that Covid-19 could make worse – if we let it.

On the most recent data, just over 13 percent or 150,000 of all tamariki experience material hardship. This means they live in households unable to afford six or more essential items including having enough to eat, fresh vegetables, and warm clothes.

 About 235,400 children live in low-income households*. That’s about 20.8 percent of all people aged under 18 years.

 “These are not statistics in a vacuum. The tentacles of poverty reach into every aspect of children’s lives,” Commissioner Becroft says.

“About a quarter of children live in damp and sometimes mouldy homes, and children living in areas with the highest levels of deprivation are twice as likely to end up in hospital than children in the least deprived areas.”

Income and hardship data in the Monitor are based on the period up to June 2019, and show the country was roughly on track to meet the Government’s 2021 targets under the Child Poverty Reduction Act 2018. But Treasury has warned that COVID-19 may increase poverty and hardship rates further.

“Whether Covid-19 worsens outcomes for tamariki depends entirely on how Government and all of us respond,” Commissioner Becroft says.

 “Just as we came together to keep each other safe from Covid-19, we can choose to solve poverty and set a better course for our children’s future.

“Covid-19 must the reason to do more for our tamariki, not an excuse to do less”.

Robyn Scott, Executive Director of the J R McKenzie Trust, says New Zealand is facing big decisions about the priority it puts on the wellbeing of children post COVID-19.

“Government responses to Covid-19 including wage subsidies, a small increase in benefits, and the temporary doubling of the Winter Energy Payment were a great start. But business also needs to play a part with better pay and conditions, and opportunities for people to develop,” Ms Scott says.

Dr Mavis Duncanson of the University of Otago says the response to Covid-19 showed transformational change was achievable. “It’s entirely possible, for example, to set family incomes at liveable levels, starting with immediate adequate income support. This is one way to relieve pressure on whānau and give children a real opportunity to thrive.”

Commissioner Becroft is calling for three key solutions:

  1. Raise family incomes by increasing benefits, enabling people to live with dignity
  2. Increase the supply of state and social housing and bring in new ways to manage rental costs and quality
  3. Help families meet their immediate needs, for example by expanding the food in schools programme and extending free medical care to everyone under the age of 18.

 “The Government, with cross-party support, laid strong foundations on which to build better progress for children. These include the Child Poverty Reduction legislation, the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, and linking benefits to wages. Now, our children need some walls built on those foundations – big, bold permanent changes that ensure all tamariki have what they need to flourish,” Commissioner Becroft says.