When the Children's Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, set up an "expert advisory group on solutions to child poverty" this year, many New Zealanders will have cheered. "Poverty" may be a hyperbolic term for low income levels in this country, and "child poverty" has a manipulative ring, but if there are practical, affordable ways to give children a more equal start in life, let us hear them.

The expert group's final report, issued this week, does not disappoint. It has suggested immediate steps that seem easily affordable and postponed the more costly and dubious options it proposed in August, such as paying a benefit for all children including the well-off.

The immediate steps it suggests include: letting children benefit directly from their non-custodial parent's child support payments to Inland Revenue, establishing a "warrant of fitness" for rental housing, providing small loans at little or no interest for low-income households and feeding pupils in decile 1 to 4 primary and intermediate schools.

The first of those suggestions appeals not only as an income boost for the household but as an incentive to make child support payments. Non-custodial parents, usually fathers, should not need the incentive but many resent the obligation to reimburse the state for the sustenance of their children.


The advisory group suggests Inland Revenue pass on up to $10 a week for each child, which seems little but it would amount to a third of the total that Inland Revenue receives.

New regulations for rental housing could also be readily introduced. The Government, at the Greens' instigation, already provides a generous home heating and insulation subsidy that is available to landlords on the basis of their tenants' household income.

Yet only about 5 per cent of rental houses have been insulated. It may be time to turn that offer into an obligation on those offering homes for rent. No child need be living in cold, damp conditions at risk of constant respiratory illness and infections.

Low or interest-free credit is the most novel of the experts' proposals. It is also the most vague. They call it a "public-private partnership micro-financing model" which suggests short-term loans, at subsidised interest and under-written by the taxpayer, for the sort of debts or unexpected bills that too often put poor householders at the mercy of loan sharks. The cost to the taxpayer might not exceed the sums already provided in emergency grants, with a better chance of repayment.

Food in schools is the most familiar suggestion, and the one that should be treated most warily. It could easily become an entitlement for all children, needy or not. The safest course may be simply to allow schools to use some of their decile grant for the purpose. Each school is best placed to assess genuine local deprivation and balance food against other educational equipment.

The expert adviser group believes as many as 270,000 children - one in four - live in "poverty", by which it means a disposable household income after housing costs of up to 60 per cent of the median. The minimum wage is around 60 per cent of the median. Just about all households below that poverty line must be living on the sole parent benefit or a single income. How many of them would call their condition poverty?

A better measure, also employed by the experts, is a survey of family possessions and opportunities. It shows there are children lacking warm clothes, two pairs of sturdy shoes, a waterproof jacket, a separate bed, who are not taken on holiday or given a birthday party. That is the sort of poverty that should not be happening here.