Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Child poverty expert goes it alone

Dr Russell Wills.
Dr Russell Wills.

Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has decided to publish his own annual stocktake of child poverty after the Government spurned his call to publish official measures and targets.

His first annual update will be published in December with analysis by experts at Otago University, edited by a private communications company and totally funded by a $525,000 grant from the philanthropic Wellington-based JR McKenzie Trust.

He said the project would not involve any taxpayers' money and he did not need to get it signed off by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, who appointed him in 2011 for a five-year term.

He said the minister had been kept fully informed.

An expert advisory group appointed by Dr Wills last year proposed a new law requiring the Government to measure child poverty, set targets to reduce it, and report annually to Parliament on progress towards those targets.

Finance Minister Bill English, who chairs the ministerial committee on poverty, ruled out both measures and targets, saying measures of "relative poverty" made no sense because they did not show how rich or poor people were in absolute terms.

In Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair promised in 1999 to halve child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it by 2020. Britain's Child Poverty Act defines poverty in four ways - a relative measure of less than 60 per cent of median income, an absolute measure of below 60 per cent of a fixed base income, a measure of specific kinds of "deprivation", and persistent poverty lasting more than three years.

The Child Poverty Action Group says child poverty did fall by a quarter up to 2005, due mainly to increasing employment for sole parents, higher child tax credits and more spending on early education and care. But progress stalled after that.

Dr Wills' expert group proposed five similar measures charting relative and absolute poverty, deprivation, persistent poverty and "severe" poverty.

Most of the data required for the measures is already published annually by the Social Development Ministry but Dr Wills said it needed to be interpreted for the public. He cited TV3's The Vote in June, where he was challenged about a figure in the ministry's report that 60 per cent of the median income for a family of two parents and two children, after housing costs, was $600 a week or about $30,000 a year.

"So there's people thinking that everybody [who is poor] is on $30,000," he said. "They are not. If you look at the graph of people by income, the graph is really steep, so 60 per cent is the top of a really steep curve which falls away steeply below that, so of all the people under $30,000 the median is about $10,000. It's tiny."

McKenzie Trust director Iain Hines said his trust would pay $400,000 over the next five years to the NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service at Otago University to analyse the data and $125,000 over five years to Dr Wills' office to edit and publish the annual poverty report.

Labour children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said a Labour Government would legislate to require annual child poverty measures and targets.

Ms Bennett said the Government had a proud record of putting children and their families first.

"This track record spans across health, education, housing and social development and is evident in the Government's consistent approach to the most vulnerable New Zealanders.

"I welcome the group's focus on children and this Government is addressing in full or in part around two-thirds of the recommendations put forward. We'll continue with our multi-faceted strategy to help low-income and vulnerable families."

Dr Russell Wills

May 2011: Appointed Children's Commissioner for his reputation in tackling family violence.
Oct 2011: Set reducing child poverty as first of seven points in proposed "children's action plan''.
March 2012: Appointed expert group on child poverty.
Dec 2012: Group's proposals to define child poverty measures and set targets rejected.
Oct 2013: Dr Wills says he will use philanthropic money to publish his own child poverty measures


Govt response given 'modest' grading

An expert group on child poverty has given the Government a "modest" grade for taking some action on 23 of 78 recommendations the group made in a landmark report last year.

The expert group, appointed by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills, says in a progress report today that actions so far are pleasing, but "more needs to be done".

"Our own assessment of the Government's 2013 Budget and other announcements is that at least 23 of the expert advisory group's 78 recommendations are being either partially or wholly addressed," it says.

The Government has given $9.5 million over five years to a school breakfast programme run by Fonterra and Sanitarium, agreed to develop a "warrant of fitness" for rental housing initially for state houses, started work on a low-interest loan scheme for poor families, and invested more in home insulation, rheumatic fever screening and other programmes.

But the expert group says the Government has not picked up any of its proposals in the two key areas of income and health. Asked how he would grade the Government's response so far, co-chairman Professor Jonathan Boston said, "At best I would call it 'modest'."

Dr Wills was more generous, calling the expert group's work "one of the most effective child advocacy exercises ever undertaken in New Zealand's history".

The expert group said the three most pressing areas for further action were adopting child poverty reduction targets, reforming child tax credits to pay the same for young children as for teenagers, and more investment in housing and health through social housing, the rental housing "warrant of fitness"and free primary healthcare for children.

- NZ Herald

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