Article by Simon Collins, The Herald
Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills has decided to publish
his own annual stocktake of child poverty after the Government
spurned his call to publish official measures and targets.
His first annual update will be published in December with
analysis by experts at Otago University, edited by a private
communications company and totally funded by a $525,000 grant from
the philanthropic Wellington-based JR McKenzie Trust.
He said the project would not involve any taxpayers' money and
he did not need to get it signed off by Social Development Minister
Paula Bennett, who appointed him in 2011 for a five-year term.
He said the minister had been kept fully informed.
An expert advisory group appointed by Dr Wills last year
proposed a new law requiring the Government to measure child
poverty, set targets to reduce it, and report annually to
Parliament on progress towards those targets.
Finance Minister Bill English, who chairs the ministerial
committee on poverty, ruled out both measures and targets, saying
measures of "relative poverty" made no sense because they did not
show how rich or poor people were in absolute terms.
In Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair promised in 1999 to halve
child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it by 2020. Britain's Child
Poverty Act defines poverty in four ways - a relative measure of
less than 60 per cent of median income, an absolute measure of
below 60 per cent of a fixed base income, a measure of specific
kinds of "deprivation", and persistent poverty lasting more than
The Child Poverty Action Group says child poverty did fall by a
quarter up to 2005, due mainly to increasing employment for sole
parents, higher child tax credits and more spending on early
education and care. But progress stalled after that.
Dr Wills' expert group proposed five similar measures charting
relative and absolute poverty, deprivation, persistent poverty and
Most of the data required for the measures is already published
annually by the Social Development Ministry but Dr Wills said it
needed to be interpreted for the public. He cited TV3's The Vote in
June, where he was challenged about a figure in the ministry's
report that 60 per cent of the median income for a family of two
parents and two children, after housing costs, was $600 a week or
about $30,000 a year.
"So there's people thinking that everybody [who is poor] is on
$30,000," he said. "They are not. If you look at the graph of
people by income, the graph is really steep, so 60 per cent is the
top of a really steep curve which falls away steeply below that, so
of all the people under $30,000 the median is about $10,000. It's
McKenzie Trust director Iain Hines said his trust would pay
$400,000 over the next five years to the NZ Child and Youth
Epidemiology Service at Otago University to analyse the data and
$125,000 over five years to Dr Wills' office to edit and publish
the annual poverty report.
Labour children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said a Labour
Government would legislate to require annual child poverty measures
Ms Bennett said the Government had a proud record of putting
children and their families first.
"This track record spans across health, education, housing and
social development and is evident in the Government's consistent
approach to the most vulnerable New Zealanders.
"I welcome the group's focus on children and this Government is
addressing in full or in part around two-thirds of the
recommendations put forward. We'll continue with our multi-faceted
strategy to help low-income and vulnerable families."
Dr Russell Wills
• May 2011: Appointed Children's Commissioner
for his reputation in tackling family violence.
• Oct 2011: Set reducing child poverty as first
of seven points in proposed "children's action plan''.
• March 2012: Appointed expert group on child
• Dec 2012: Group's proposals to define child
poverty measures and set targets rejected.
• Oct 2013: Dr Wills says he will use
philanthropic money to publish his own child poverty measures
Govt response given 'modest' grading
An expert group on child poverty has given the Government a
"modest" grade for taking some action on 23 of 78 recommendations
the group made in a landmark report last year.
The expert group, appointed by Children's Commissioner Dr
Russell Wills, says in a progress report today that actions so far
are pleasing, but "more needs to be done".
"Our own assessment of the Government's 2013 Budget and other
announcements is that at least 23 of the expert advisory group's 78
recommendations are being either partially or wholly addressed," it
The Government has given $9.5 million over five years to a
school breakfast programme run by Fonterra and Sanitarium, agreed
to develop a "warrant of fitness" for rental housing initially for
state houses, started work on a low-interest loan scheme for poor
families, and invested more in home insulation, rheumatic fever
screening and other programmes.
But the expert group says the Government has not picked up any
of its proposals in the two key areas of income and health. Asked
how he would grade the Government's response so far, co-chairman
Professor Jonathan Boston said, "At best I would call it
Dr Wills was more generous, calling the expert group's work "one
of the most effective child advocacy exercises ever undertaken in
New Zealand's history".
The expert group said the three most pressing areas for further
action were adopting child poverty reduction targets, reforming
child tax credits to pay the same for young children as for
teenagers, and more investment in housing and health through social
housing, the rental housing "warrant of fitness"and free primary
healthcare for children.