Claire Trevett: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s do-or-die child poverty promise

OPINION:

If it wasn’t for Covid-19, child poverty would be PM Jacinda Ardern’s do-or-die issue.

It was the issue she highlighted when she became Labour leader. When she became Prime Minister, she made herself Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

Not just Minister for Child Poverty. Her KPI is in her job title: child poverty reduction.

She has left herself no room to fail.

Ardern had legislated to require Governments to set targets for poverty reduction, and then set the targets her Government would be held to over three and 10 years.

The three-year targets for the 2020/21 year will be judged by next year’s results – this year’s covered up to March 2020.

On the latest statistics, she is at a B-, not a fail, but not a resounding success.

Yes, since 2018 there have been drops across all measures used to define child poverty. However, many were marginal and on some of the measures things had got slightly worse since the 2020 release.

While child advocate groups have called the improvements “incremental” and a failure to deliver on the transformation Ardern promised, Ardern has naturally chosen to focus on the bright side – saying the Government was “within a sampling error” of hitting the targets it had set on many measures. That included the numbers living in homes with an income of less than 50 per cent of the media income, including housing costs.

The trouble with the sampling error argument is that the opposite can also apply: things could be even worse than the numbers show.

The survey does not take into account any of the Covid-19 lockdown period: the survey halted in March, three months short of its usual length.

But that does not render the information redundant. It does provide a mechanism to track how effective Government interventions have been – and how much more needs to be done, and where.

Critically for the Government, this year’s release was the first that showed the impact of a full year of the $5 billion Families Package.

That package was Labour’s primary prescription for child poverty – a combination of more generous Working for Families payments, allowances for those on low incomes and those with new babies.

Ardern rejected any suggestion the Families Package had not had the impact expected.

But the concerning thing the data did show was that the improvements for the very poorest households were less than for those who were slightly better off.

The numbers also showed significant disparity for Pacific, Māori, and the disabled in particular.

Asked what the Government would do to address that, Ardern said her next focus for policies will be on those in “deep, entrenched poverty” – but stopped short of saying how that would be done.

Ardern’s promises of “transformation” and the targets she set pre-dated Covid-19.

The question Ardern now faces is whether the “transformation” needed to hit those targets is affordable.

In terms of the Covid-19 period, Ardern has pointed to one of the Government’s earliest decisions at that time: the lockdown decisions to boost benefits and the winter energy payment. The impact of those changes are not yet included in the figures.

But perhaps more crucially, the survey period does not include the sky-rocketing property and rental costs since lockdown.

The surveys identify the cost of housing as a key factor in child poverty.

Ardern has to fix housing to fix child poverty – and this is a whole other challenge.

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