Susan St John: Child poverty measures short-change families

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Most tellingly, 220,000 children fall under the very stringent 50 per cent after housing costs poverty line. Photo / Richard Robinson
Most tellingly, 220,000 children fall under the very stringent 50 per cent after housing costs poverty line. Photo / Richard Robinson

All the measures of child poverty are pointing in the wrong direction. Most tellingly, 220,000 children fall under the very stringent 50 per cent after housing costs poverty line. Critics have said that these figures are dated as they refer to 2014, but there is little to suggest the 2015 figures will be any different.

It is hard to agree with the Herald's editorial that the 2016 changes "ought to have figured in some way" in the Children's Commissioner's latest report. The small changes announced in the 2015 Budget have had no impact on child poverty in 2015. The changes are not implemented until April 1, 2016. The reason given for the year's delay was the need for consultation. However, despite 31 submissions, the Ministry of Social Development's 45-page report to the Social Services Committee advised no changes at all.

Why was the small increase for desperately needy families delayed a year for this illusion of consultation? In contrast, for example, the removal of the kick-start for KiwiSaver was both announced and implemented on Budget night 2015; and MPs' large salary increases just announced in time for Christmas will be backdated to July 2015.

Worse still, the Government has been taking the credit all year for these future changes. But the changes entail many offsets and more stringent work demands.

Under Working for Families in 2005, the adult benefit was no longer based on dependent children. Now we have a muddle in which the adult benefit increases by $25 a week for those with children. Most disappointing of all, the 2016 increase in the tax credit for parents with jobs makes the inherent discrimination of this programme worse.

A shameful disparity between the treatment of children in families who can work enough paid hours, and those children whose families cannot, means in practice New Zealand has two classes of low-income children. The "in work" worthy can be supported to the full extent of the social security legislation, and the children of the unworthy, the outcasts: beneficiaries, disproportionately the disabled, Maori or Pasifika, many with chronic illness, are consigned to remain in poverty.

The parents of the "undeserving children" may struggle in a casualised labour market, on low wages or with redundancies, or in the aftermath of disasters. Irrespective of the cause of low income, regardless of circumstance, all children could and should be afforded the same tax-funded child payments to ensure an adequate standard of living.

Some say they are sick of reports on child poverty that offer no solutions. Our group has strongly recommended radical changes to Working for Families to end the discrimination and give every child a better chance of a healthy and fulfilling life.

These changes include much needed simplification so that there is just one weekly tax credit, the Family Tax Credit paid to the caregiver. In practice this will have the effect of increasing child assistance by $72.50 a week for the very poorest families. This is a very cost-effective measure as it does not affect families further up the income scale.

Then there are those 34,000 newborns who get no extra help at all from paid parental leave. Our group says add $100 a week to the newborn's Family Tax Credit for one year for those who don't get paid parental leave. As well, all parts of Working for Families must be increased annually to reflect both inflation and growth in wages.

Recent attacks on Working for Families has seen it scaled back over time affecting those on very low wages. These changes must be reversed.

Overall, spending of an extra $1 billion per annum is required immediately. This is what an "investment approach" to child poverty should look like.

• Associate Professor Susan St John is spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group.

- NZ Herald

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