Every year, the Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills issues an update on child poverty. Until this year, the commissioner could have been forgiven for thinking his annual pleas fell on deaf ears in the Beehive. But the Budget delivered in May this year made an attempt to reduce the problem.
Benefits are to increase by $25 a week for families and tax credits by $12.50 a week for low-income earners with children. Working families will also receive a higher childcare subsidy. The relief will take effect in April, so it is too soon to know just how much help it will be.
Nevertheless, they ought to have figured in some way in the Children's Commissioner's latest report issued this week. After all, the annual series is called the Child Poverty Monitor and it is subtitled "tracking progress on reducing child poverty in New Zealand". It is not the work of the commissioner's office alone: it is compiled in partnership with the University of Otago's Child and Youth Epidemiology Service and the J R McKenzie Trust. A reading of their 80-page report would search long and hard for any reference to the programmed benefit increases. In fact, its latest data is from 2014, already a year out of date.
The commissioner, whose term ends next year, has done a fine job raising public consciousness on the problem.
For that he is to be commended. But there does come a point at which people tire of constant reminders of its scale. Even the beneficiaries advocate, Sue Bradford, commented yesterday it was time to hear the commissioner lend his weight to practical solutions. But he sees his role as limited to contributing to a climate of public opinion to which governments will respond. In fact, the main suggestion that has come from his social policy advisory group is child poverty should be annually measured against a reduction target. Measuring seems to be all that is suggested.
The latest report tells us 29 per cent of children lived in poverty in 2014, up from 24 per cent the previous year. About 14 per cent live in material hardship, lacking several of the items most New Zealanders would consider essential, and three out of five of the 29 per cent in poverty are likely to see no improvement in their situation over seven years. This is a disgrace.
There is no shortage of surveys measuring these things. Yesterday, our front page featured an ASB housing analysis that found a disproportionate number of houses in Auckland are home to two or even three families. This is the downside of average house prices approaching $1 million and rents that will probably continue to rise if investors' expectations of capital gains are not constrained.
The Children's Commissioner reports 16 per cent of children in overcrowded houses (defined as at least one bedroom short), including half of all children in Pacific ethnic groups. The figures are always troubling and governments must do what they can. When they provide some suggested solutions, the country needs to know whether it is working. At this rate we will have no report on this year's Budget decisions until end of 2017. Surely social analysts can do better. Our children deserve nothing less.
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