In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 18,000 children were pushed into poverty in New Zealand despite child welfare being one of prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s main concerns. This was the result of a 72-page study by the Child Poverty Action Group. The group focused on eliminating poverty and put much of the increased poverty, inequity, homelessness and food insecurity down to government neglect as it created its policies during the pandemic.
The report shows that demand for food banks spiked during the March 2020 lockdown and remained at roughly double pre-Covid levels; that those getting in debt through loans was at a record high; and that Māori and Pasifika children are more likely to have been pushed into poverty since last year. Changes in youth homelessness and chronic absences for low-income students were also worse for Māori and Pasifika than for Pākehā (European New Zealanders).
Reducing child poverty is one of Ardern’s signature issues. In her newly created role as minister for child poverty reduction she introduced legislation in 2018 that set out to create political accountability for reduction targets. But data released earlier this year shows that progress is moving at a glacial pace, with many vulnerable children still living in damp, unaffordable homes and with families that run out of food. More children than ever are living in motels as the public housing waitlist booms.
On Tuesday, Ardern said it would be difficult to find a government from the past several decades that had done more to address child poverty than the current one. “As soon as Covid hit, we knew that the impact would be felt heavily by children already experiencing poverty, that’s why put in an extra $25 into weekly benefits, changed requirements for in-work tax credits and, in the last budget, made substantial changes to our welfare system.”
Ardern said she was “really proud” of the efforts the government had made to cushion families from the worst impacts of Covid-19. The study’s modelling does not take into account rising house costs, which could further contribute to the numbers.
“This increase in child poverty of about 10% comes at a time when property owners have seen their wealth rise at an accelerated rate,” report author and Janet McAllister said. “The government avoided one massive health and economic crisis but it enabled another one – that of poverty, homelessness and inequality – to grow rapidly.”
The report identified three main areas driving increasing inequity: decades of government neglect of incomes and housing, meaning that financial and housing resilience was shaky when Covid-19 hit; job loss and education disruptions from the ongoing effects of Covid-19; and government policies that failed to ensure adequate income support for hundreds of thousands of children.
The government doled out $13 billion in wage subsidies to people whose jobs were affected by the lockdown and ongoing disruptions, but many people in lower-socioeconomic positions missed out, report author and Public Health Association chief executive, Leah Bain, said. The wage subsidy was nearly twice the rate paid to people receiving JobSeeker Support and while it kept hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, it neglected those already in poverty or at high risk of poverty, the report added.
“A few tweaks to standard income support – a $25 per family benefit increase, and a doubled Winter Energy Payment – were so small that increasing numbers of people were left reliant on supplementary assistance to try and make ends meet,” it said. The report’s modelling does not take into consideration the increase in benefits announced by the government in May, but Child Poverty Action Group has criticised that boost as insufficient.
The report said the government must increase benefits, address high rental costs and unsafe emergency housing and put Māori and children’s voices at the centre of efforts to remedy some of the troubling trends.