Book suggests we fix declining benefits and shoddy housing

In the flush of election victory, John Key said something about tackling child poverty in this term. He was looking for fresh ideas from ministers in the new year.

I hope the books Anne Tolley (social development), Paula Bennett (social housing), Te Ururoa Flavell (Maori), Sam Lotu Iinga (Pacific) and Nikki Kaye (youth) packed in their beach bags as they headed away for their summer holidays included one published just before the election, Child Poverty in New Zealand, by Jonathan Boston and Simon Chapple.

Boston chairs the Children's Commissioner's expert advisory group that has been telling us for two years that one in four New Zealand children lives in "poverty".

They define it as a proportion of the country's mean household income, and the book explains that benefits have not increased with wages in New Zealand for a long time.

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Basic benefits have been increasing with the cost of living as measured by the consumer prices index, which was generous in the 1970s when wages could never quite catch galloping inflation.

Since the reforms of the 80s, New Zealand has enjoyed low inflation and economic growth that has enabled wages to rise more than prices, increasing the national living standard.

Boston and Chapple make a good case for increasing benefits by the rate of average wage rises.

It is strange that Labour did not make this change 10 or more years ago when it had budget surpluses, National should do now. Ideally, it would backdate the increases as far as surpluses might permit, giving benefits quite a boost in the next few years.

Pensions have long enjoyed increases pegged to wages, and it is not fair to treat superannuitants so much more generously than other state dependants, particularly children.

Most senior citizens are fairly well off because they own their house; more than 70 per cent of children in poverty are in households that rent. Boston and Chapple have written a powerful chapter on that subject.

Rocketing house prices have caused home ownership to fall from 73 per cent of the population to an estimated 64.5 per cent today. Among Maori and Pacific people it is much lower.

About 30 per cent of the population pays rent to private landlords. Only 6 per cent are in state or "social" housing, the only sector that received attention in the Prime Minister's first speech of the year this week.

The state subsidises private rent with an accommodation supplement that goes to landlords and the state requires little from them in return.

Boston and Chapple write: "Lots of poor families live in homes that are cold, leaky, poorly insulated, expensive to heat and often overcrowded."

They say problems include damp floor and walls, insecure foundations, poorly fitting windows, rot, limited sunlight and inadequate facilities for washing and heating.

A survey of children admitted to hospital with respiratory infections in Counties Manukau found 27 per cent had no source of heating in their homes. About 60 per cent of patients with acute respiratory infection in Auckland Hospital in 2012 said they were usually cold in their house. Paying rent does not leave much for power bills.

For the kids, health is not the only thing that suffers. Renting people move a lot. Nearly 20 per cent of the population moves every year, about half the rate in Britain. The average New Zealand home owner moves every six years, the average tenant moves every two years.

"Those renting from private landlords tend to move more frequently than those in social housing," the book says.

For children, each shift is likely to mean a change of school, some loss of attendance in the transition and the disruption of friendships and social relationships. Lower decile schools have much less stable rolls than the better off.

Paula Bennett does not have to read a book to know what to do about this. Her new social housing portfolio is served by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise which said in its post-election briefing that the rental housing market needed better security of tenure.

It didn't elaborate but the possibilities are obvious. A "warrant of fitness" for rental houses should be a condition of the accommodation supplement. If it causes rent to rise initially, the supplement can be increased.

The law should give tenants several years of secure tenure, too. A house is not like any other commodity, it is the foundation of people's lives. If the Government was to pick up this idea, it might do more than reduce child poverty, a rigorous rental code might make investment property less attractive and enable more parents to buy a home of their own. That would distinguish a third term.