Jacinda Ardern is telling audiences she will change the Public Finance Act "so that every budget, you don't just hear about surpluses and deficits, you will hear about how many kids we have lifted out of poverty". That would be interesting. I would like to know how many kids the present Government has lifted out of "poverty". Seriously.
Just about everybody will have forgotten by now that way back in the Budget of 2015, the Government announced a $25 lift in benefit payments which were just above $300 a week at that point. The increased payments started in April, 2016.
Ever since, I've been waiting to see what difference the increase would make to the astonishing statistics constantly recited to us on the subject of child poverty. I'm still waiting.
The appalling figures are published annually as the "child poverty monitor" set up five years ago by the previous Children's Commissioner, Russell Wills. The commissioner's office puts out the report in December each year and always receives headline coverage of its findings that as many as 295,000 children are living below its statistical poverty line and something like 155,000 are lacking necessities such as a raincoat and a change of shoes.
Those were the figures it published in December last year. They were no improvement on the previous report, which surprised me in view of the increased benefit payments since April that year.
I searched the monitoring group's documents for some indication of the effect of the April increase and found no mention of it. Nothing in the press summary, nothing in the graphic presentation of the big round numbers, and nothing in the technical report. I'd read well into the dry pages of statistical breakdowns before the penny dropped. All of the latest figures available were for 2015.
The whole exercise is based on figures a year out of date.
The monitoring group analyses the results of an annual survey of household incomes and material wellbeing by the Ministry of Social Development and Statistics NZ's household economic survey. Between them, the ministry and the monitoring group take more than a year to turn the survey results into the statistics they are seeking. That wouldn't matter so much if its annual public report was up-front about the lag in its findings, but it is not. It is happy to leave the impression the figures are fresh and up to the minute.
In fact, it will be the end of this year before we get any indication of the impact, if any, of a lift in beneficiaries incomes that has been in effect for 16 months already. In the meantime we will have an election in which the numbers left behind by economic growth will be one of our decisive concerns.
Social scientists using terms such as "poverty" and "the poor" in a New Zealand context never tire of telling us the only thing these people need is more money. They sniff at suggestions that poor life choices and unwise spending decisions might be a large part of the problem and pointers to solutions. The solution is simple they say, more money.
So you would think that when a government finally listens to them and having achieved a solid Budget surplus, puts more money into beneficiaries' hands, the scientists would be anxious to study the outcomes. They would not be waiting 18 months for some figures to come through.
Yet, not only has there been no study as far as I am aware but I have seen no reference to last year's benefits boost in any of the many OpEd articles the Herald publishes from the Child Poverty Action Group and similar social policy advocates. They are content to lament the "latest" statistics and lambast the Government as though last year's benefit boost had never happened.
I would not be surprised if a little extra income has made no discernible difference to the statistics, but if that is the finding in December, let's stop pretending the solution is that simple.
Bill English is probably looking forward to questions on social welfare in election debates. If you can find the Herald's "job interview" feature online this week, you will see how earnest and interesting English becomes when he is explaining his "social investment" solutions. Essentially, he directs money to agencies that can get close to individuals and families in all their particular difficulties. He has much less faith in simply dropping funds on a social category.
Statistics are not people. Many of the kids are in households below the poverty line (60 per cent of the median wage after housing costs), will have a sole parent beneficiary who is also getting the help Metiria Turei received from the families and the father. We need to know who needs more help and what works.