Wherever you draw the line, too many children are going without.
By one measure, one in every 10 New Zealand children is growing up in conditions of material hardship. By a less exacting measure it is one in four.
Regardless of where you draw some arbitrary dividing line, the figure is way too high.
The numbers come from the officials' report (the regulatory impact statement, in the jargon) that accompanies legislation now before Parliament to implement the child poverty package announced in May's Budget. The metric is a deprivation index (Dep-17) developed by the Ministry of Social Development to measure material hardship.
It reflects answers to 17 pretty practical questions put to households by the statisticians: Have you gone without or cut back on fresh fruit and vegetables to help pay for other basic items? Or postponed visits to the doctor, or the dentist, because money was needed for other essentials?
Have you been in arrears more than once in the past 12 months with your power bill? Or had to borrow money from friends or family to cover everyday living costs? Does anyone have only one pair of shoes in good repair? Things like that.
For 100,000 children, or one in 10, home is somewhere where at least nine of those 17 tests of deprivation are met - a level the ministry labels "more severe hardship." Of those 100,000 children, 69,000 are from families with an income - after housing costs - of less than 60 per cent of the median household income, and 58,000 from those with an income of less than 50 per cent of the median (a more stringent "poverty line").
So while income poverty overlaps with severe hardship, it is not the only driver. On the face of it this grim picture is hard to reconcile with the cheerful results, reported in this column two weeks ago, which found New Zealand ranked third highest among 40 developed countries for the material living standards of households with 15-year-old children.
But only on the face of it. Averages can mask a wide range of outcomes. If Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average net worth of the people in the bar will shoot up, but the rest of them don't suddenly become billionaires.
That earlier report was based on the work of two economists at Wellington research house Motu, Arthur Grimes and Sean Hyland. They took data from the OECD's Pisa standardised international tests of 15-year-olds' performance at maths, science and reading.
The Pisa surveys, which involve hundreds of thousands of kids across 40 countries, include questions designed to get a feel for their home circumstances, like whether they have a computer and an internet connection, a room of their own or a quiet place to study, how many bathrooms and cars, and so on. The aim is to illuminate to what extent kids' socio-economic circumstances are influencing their academic performance, or how much the school system can overcome disadvantages of that kind.
In the absence of international data specifically designed to provide non-income measures of material wellbeing, Grimes and Hyland argued, the Pisa results provide a useful proxy for comparing living standards across countries of households at a similar stage of their life cycles.
And New Zealand compares well on a national average basis, ranging between second and fourth highest in the last three Pisa surveys.
However, the Ministry of Social Development has developed its own material wellbeing index reflecting non-income measures of households' living standards.
It provides a higher-magnification picture of how New Zealand households are doing than the Pisa data can give. It reflects the results of 24 questions chosen for the purpose, spread across all households, not just those with 15-year-old children, and broken down by income decile.
It includes not only questions about what people might have done without or economised on, but also questions designed to calibrate the scale of more affluent households, like whether they can afford a holiday away from home at least once a year, and overseas at least every three years, and whether they could handle an unexpected bill of $500 without borrowing.
Using the ministry's preferred indicative threshold level for material hardship as measured by this material wellbeing index, the proportion of children on the wrong side of the line has fallen from 16 per cent in 2008, a recession year, to 14 per cent in the 2013/14 survey, when the economy was approaching its cyclical peak. And the latter was a year when the Government spent $1.3 billion on sole parent support, $2.6 billion on Working for Families tax credits and $1.1 billion on accommodation supplement.
Measured against that expenditure of $5 billion, the Budget's package worth (eventually) $240 million a year is as underwhelming as it is overdue.
"A weekly rise in benefits of up to $25 for families at the hardest end will be helpful for families with one child, though less so for those with more children as the increase is per family rather than per child," the Children's Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, said in his submission on the legislation. Children living in hardship in larger families, where poverty is more prevalent, would see very little effect, he said.
And it is a one-off adjustment to benefit levels. The Government has studiously ignored calls by the OECD, among others, to index benefit levels to wage inflation rather than the consumers price index.
The OECD in its report on New Zealand last April said that in view of the high child poverty rate in beneficiary households, priority should be given to raising income by increasing benefits for welfare beneficiaries with dependent children.
The ratio of benefit payments to the net average wage lurched lower with Ruth Richardson's Mother of All Budgets in 1991 and has continued to decline relentlessly since then as real wages have risen.
The system needs to signal that people will be better off working if they can. But after decades of a widening gap between wages and benefits, the signal is loud enough already. Any change to the indexation would be from a very low base.
New Zealand Superannuation, after all, is indexed to the average wage and not, like the main welfare benefits, to the CPI.
That is one of the reasons why rates of both income poverty and material hardship are relatively low for those aged 65 and over. Shame the same cannot be said for so many kids.