Claims that up to a quarter of New Zealand children are in poverty are widely seen as exaggerating a real but smaller problem. Overstating actual levels of deprivation is having a counter-productive effect, many people see the ‘poverty’ campaign more as political posturing than an honest consideration of our worst off kids.
People promoting poverty mean well but damaging their credibility by constant exaggeration will make it harder to effectively target those in greatest need.
And different claims with different numbers leave people wondering what the real number is.
- “265,000 Kiwi kids live in poverty”
- a national estimate of 180,000 children
- It represents around 100,000 children suffering real hardship in low-income households.
One in four, one in six, one in ten?
A New Zealand Herald editorial looks at the problem with numbers in Child poverty figure needs more clarity to target relief.
Headlines that “265,000 Kiwi kids live in poverty” – one in four children in this country – are not new and the impact is diminishing with repetition. Anybody who thinks about that figure wonders whether it can be right. One in four is such a high proportion of the population that the plight of these children would surely be overwhelming health, welfare and education systems.
Even using the term ‘poverty’ is problematic. Trying to claim that a quarter of our kids are as badly off as the poorest in India and Africa is absurd.
In fact, that figure is an income statistic. This year, 25 per cent of children in households surveyed by Statistics NZ for the Ministry of Social Development were in families living on less than 60 per cent of the median income after tax, adjusted for family size and composition. Some of those children are going without material necessities but by no means all.
If it’s just a statistic then unless the definition is changed there will always be a high number of children in ‘poverty’ – at the bottom quarter of the income scale.
A better measure of child poverty, also used for the commissioner’s report, is a ministry survey of household possessions and economising behaviour. It asks whether the household can keep its main rooms warm, provide a meal with meat at least every second day, pay for water and electricity on time, provide good beds, replace worn out clothes, visit the doctor, replace broken appliances, afford clothes for important or special occasions, and so on.
A household that says it cannot afford any six of 16 such expenses is considered to be in hardship. Last year 17 per cent of children in surveyed households were in that predicament. That produces a national estimate of 180,000 children, not one in four but more than one in six.
However the households in hardship are not always those on a low income. The report notes that “living above the income poverty line is insufficient to protect some families from material hardship. Conversely, not all with an income below the poverty line experience material hardship.”
In fact, it says, only 35-45 per cent of poor households are poor on both measures.
Those in material hardship with incomes about the 60 per cent median are likely to see their circumstances improve, the report says. It is those in hardship with incomes below the poverty line who need help. If they comprise 35-45 per cent of “one in four” children then we are talking about perhaps one in 10 – a troubling figure and one likely to be more readily accepted by the public.
It represents around 100,000 children suffering real hardship in low-income households.
That’s a worrying number of kids suffering real hardship, but the message is severely diminished by over-statement and exaggerated claims that continue after the release of the report.
Green Party Health spokesperson Kevin Hague labelled the report “shocking” and said it showed the “extent of persistent poverty among Kiwi children and the horrendous impact this is having on their health”.
He claimed that the National Government won’t measure poverty because it does not want to know the real extent of the harm poverty is causing children.
“That denial is harming New Zealand kids and condemning a quarter of them to poverty that could last for years and could lead to sickness or even death.”
From Questions and Answers – December 10 in Parliament:
Dr Russel Norman: Does the Minister believe that Mr Mandela was right when he said that overcoming poverty is an act of justice, and hence her failure as a Minister in 5 years to overcome poverty means that one in four children are now still living in poverty, and one in 10 children are living in extreme poverty? Is that a matter of justice for those children, or are they still living with injustice?
Norman mentions both one in four and one in ten but refers to them as ‘poverty’ and ‘extreme poverty’.
Jacinda Ardern: Which of her public sector targets will decrease the number of children living on less than 60 percent of the median income?
That’s referring to the one in four statistic. And from Newstalk ZB Child poverty rates labelled shameful:
Labour says a new report showing quarter of Kiwi kids living in poverty is “shameful”.
MP Jacinda Ardern says the statistics are entirely preventable.
At least a non-politician has a more realistic look at it, Donna Wynd, chief researcher for Child Poverty Action Group, in No Christmas cheer for children in poverty:
Child poverty is a complex multifaceted problem requiring complex solutions, but it is not un-fixable. The turnaround in vaccination rates for Maori and Pacific children shows that with sustained political support and genuine cross-sector collaboration, we can improve outcomes for children. This includes closing our scandalous health and educational equity gaps. The Children’s Health Monitor clearly shows the equity gap is growing and who are our most vulnerable children. It is this bottom 10% of children who need immediate and prolonged support.
All the main political parties have acknowledged the need to do something about child poverty. As we go into an election year, it is time for them to outline how they can work together to do something about it.
Yes. And the first thing that needs to happen is to ditch the exaggerations and identify and target the most pressing needs, as the Herald editorial suggests.
The country has the resources to help them from its existing budget for income support. The previous Government’s system of income supplements still provides needless tax credits to large families on fairly high incomes.
That money should be diverted to children in genuine need.
But first we need to find out who they are, where they are and why their circumstances are worse than families below the 60 per cent median who are not lacking the essentials. We also need to know whether their hardship is temporary, or persistent and likely to be permanent without help.
An important part of addressing the problem is to stop the political posturing and misuse of statistics, identify the real needs and do something about it.
Exaggerating and overstating child ‘poverty’ is counter-productive. To get all parties and the public committed to addressing the real issues some honesty and accuracy is required.