Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: How hard can it be to measure child poverty?

‘Aspirational’ government won’t tackle difficult issue.
Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

The world contains many things that defy measurement. Such as the depths of grief and heights of love, or the simultaneous exact position and momentum of a particle, or quite what might possess someone to record shenanigans emanating from an airport disabled toilet. To this admittedly not exhaustive list might be added child poverty, at least if the government is to be believed.

It turns out that unlike the many dozens of phenomena for which the state designates official measurements and constructive targets - whether that be on workplace safety or child obesity or electric cars - child poverty is just too darn tricky. As has been noted repeatedly this week, it's more than a little galling that a bold target can be set to rid New Zealand of predators but not to rid New Zealand of child poverty, although it's important to note that no one is suggesting such eradications should following the same prescriptions.

The prime minister has to his credit underlined child poverty as a priority, most notably in remarks made after the election win in 2014 as part of a pledge to govern "for all New Zealanders".

So why have he and his social development ministers so consistently rebuffed advice to introduce a cross-party measure - as soberly recommended, among others, by the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty more than three years ago, and politely but firmly requested by the Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, on the Nation on the weekend?

The needle on my own, trademarked, TFB (totally, you know, baffled) measurement device has been alive with activity this week in searching for the reasons for these rejections. John Key seemed a little bashful over his own "it's a complicated area" explanation on RNZ this week. "It sounds airy-fairy but it's the advice we get," he said, with the air of a man who is a middle-manager in a pencil factory suffocated by bamboozling instructions from head office, rather than, say, the prime minister.

The baffle-o-meter reverberates at the explanations for the existing numerous public service targets. Integral to them, in the words of deputy prime minister and purse-string supervisor Bill English, is that they "focus on difficult issues". His understudy Paula Bennett, meanwhile, issued a media statement the other day explaining, "This has always been an aspirational government, which is why we set challenging targets in areas that matter to New Zealanders."

Isn't child poverty precisely the sort of difficult issue in an area that matters to New Zealanders on which an aspirational government might set a challenging target? You might think so, but you would be overlooking the airy-fairy factor. Start drafting the Official Information Act request now: seeking all advice from officials that rests on considerations pertaining to airy-fairiness.

The lights on the TFB machine (it's an elaborate construction) start flashing in technicolour, meanwhile, at the sight of New Zealand ratifying the Paris climate agreement. Three hearty cheers to us for this week's enshrinement of a target for emission reductions - let's not today quibble about the paucity of policy to achieve it, let's embrace a goal that betokens a plan. And let's applaud the fact, as Key himself has said, that by setting a target we "will send a clear message to the world: New Zealand means business". Now, how about child poverty?

Maybe most baffling of all, however, is the reminder that, while the PM says a child poverty target is altogether too-hard-basket, we're in truth already committed to one, as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Tempting thought it is to chuck our toys and quit the United Nations over the stitch-up appointment of renowned East European woman Antonio Gutteres as the next secretary general, the fact is we're signed up to these targets, including: "by 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions". And what does our government think of these goals? Airy fairy? "New Zealand regards the achievement of the SDGs as a matter of fundamental importance not just a matter of statistical interest," foreign minister Murray McCully told the world. "Be assured that New Zealand will play its full part."

There is plenty of debate around definitions of poverty - the main contention centring on whether it should be measured as relative to general wealth or based on material assessments of hardship. And while neither is perfect and the best answer is probably a bit of both, there are official nerves and ideological objection to the relative measure, which has seen the British Conservative government tear up the 2010 cross-party legislative commitment to a child poverty reduction target.

In that light, it is understandable that Judge Becroft backs sticking with a material-deprivation rate, such as the index which assesses poverty when a household meets six of 17 criteria, which include things like children not having two pairs of decent shoes, or households being able to afford heating. It's a whole lot better than nothing, it measures something real, and it's the starting point for setting a cross-party target in the cause of giving more children a decent start in life.

A Statistics New Zealand paper from 2012 on the practicalities around measuring child poverty in New Zealand makes it clear that there are indeed "difficulties" in choosing the right measure, but it also says it can be done, and: "The experience of other countries has shown that political commitment is important in the establishment of institutionalised measures of poverty." In the face of the powerful sedative effects of "the view from the officials", a bit of that commitment would be welcome.

Because, honestly, the baffleometer is about to explode: what could possibly be preventing the prime minister from establishing a measure and target on child poverty? Some kind of superstition? A rare allergy? Or maybe he and his colleagues need an ambitious incentive, a deadline - let's say six months from now - by which to achieve the target of establishing an official measure for child poverty, so that he might in turn set a target. Yes? Get on with it.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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