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The child poverty litmus test

Hon. Steve Maharey

Friday 14 June 2002

Speech Notes

The child poverty litmus test

Address to the annual general meeting of Save the Children. Brentwood Hotel, Wellington.


I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you so soon after my return from the United Nations Special Session on Children.

As you know this session was deferred last year because of the twin towers disaster.

This year many nations turned out to what became the biggest children’s conference in history. Around three hundred children attended from almost every nation in the world.

I was especially proud of the two New Zealand delegates Te Kerei and Jessica.

They each made a strong contribution to the session - Te Kerei through a powerful speech on the plight of young indigenous people - and both as impressive young ambassadors for New Zealand.

I want to thank Save the Children New Zealand for working with the government to ensure young people were part of this important event.

The UN Special Session

The UN Special Session was the first time young people were able to participate directly in the work of the United Nations.

Their participation recognised a key provision in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child - “that the child has the right to form and express views and should be listened to, especially on matters that directly affect the child.”

We can learn a great deal by listening to the views and aspirations of our children.

Former US President Harry S Truman once said “the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

Good advice - unfortunately this has not always been the predominant view. Probably a better-known saying about children is that they should be “seen and not heard’.

The level of involvement children had in the UN Special Session may not have met the approval of proponents of this saying - but I suspect they would have soon seen the wisdom in this approach.

The young people who attended demonstrated an impressive understanding of the issues and made a valuable contribution to the session.

The purpose of the Session was to bring together a policy platform that will improve the lives of children all over the world.

The views and aspirations of children and young people were very much a part of the process to establish those policies.

In some cases the policies were as basic as guaranteeing primary education, access to health care and clean water.

I say basic, although the factors that lead to situations where children are deprived of these basic rights are often complex and difficult to resolve. Making these policies a reality will require strong resolve from the international community as well as a commitment at the national and local levels.

We live in a world where too many children suffer unnecessarily. One could easily be overwhelmed by the degree of hardship among the world’s poorest children -

- 600 million children still live in extreme poverty - the largest number in history;

- over 10 million children still die every year, often from causes that can be easily prevented; and

- half a million children have died of AIDS.

So in a world with such levels of wealth, so many advances in technology and so much that is worth celebrating, why are so many of our children deprived of the future they deserve?

The facts can lead to a sense that the problem is just too big to tackle - but I believe that we can and are making a difference.

The key message delivered at the UN Special Session was clear - while good work is being done, the international community must do more to promote positive and lasting solutions for the world’s poorest children.

New Zealand’s Situation

Looking at our own situation - whilst our current levels of child poverty and social exclusion, could not be considered uncommon by world standards, they are quite simply unacceptable in an intimate society that values social cohesion and equality of opportunity highly.

Despite all the gains we have made as a country, despite all our economic, educational and social achievements, the lives of too many New Zealand children are blighted by hardship and deprivation.

The extent of poverty is difficult to measure, but research by the Ministry of Social Development using a number of different measures estimates that between 6% and 29% of all children are living in poverty.

This works out to between roughly 63,000 and 285,000 New Zealand children who are living in situations that put their immediate and long-term well-being at risk. And of all groups in our society, children appear to be particularly at risk of hardship and deprivation.

An End to Child Poverty

This Government is committed to making life better for all our children. We are committed to recognising and supporting children’s “provision”, “protection” and “participation” rights as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), which New Zealand ratified in 1993.

That’s why, in consultation with community groups, we have developed an Agenda for Children that gives high priority to children’s interests, rights and needs. The Agenda takes a holistic approach and covers all aspects of a child’s life up to 17 years of age. It has seven key action areas, one of which is ending child poverty.

The aim to end child poverty is a significant undertaking. It will not be an easy task, and we suspect it may take a long time to achieve. However it is one of the most critical challenges we face as a society.

We aim to end child poverty for two important reasons.

We want to ensure that all children are included. Our vision for New Zealand’s future is an exciting and prosperous society where everyone is included. The reality is that some families are currently excluded from participating because of financial hardship, poor health, poor housing, unemployment and poor education.

Ending child poverty is also important because disadvantage and hardship amongst children stands in the road of future economic growth and social participation.

It is pretty clear that the future prospects for children who grow up in poverty are not as good as for those who grow up in more advantaged families. The statistics and research shows us that child poverty can be damaging. Children from poor families are more likely to fail and drop out of school, be in poor health, commit crime, be injured, become unemployed and die young.

In particular, children living in poverty and hardship are less likely to achieve educationally and many leave school lacking basic foundation skills. To develop a successful innovative knowledge based economy we need to ensure that all young children are given the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential - and this cannot happen so long as they are living in poverty.

In such a small country, this is completely unacceptable, not just socially but also economically as well. The future for all of us is in jeopardy if we have large numbers of people excluded, and unable to contribute their skills and talents to our economy. For economic and social reasons, we must tackle this issue as a priority.

This will be challenging. Child poverty is by no means unique to New Zealand. Other Western democracies are grappling with this same issue and they have found there are no quick-fix solutions. It is long-term strategies that lead to sustainable employment and improved education and health that will make the lasting difference.

One way of knowing whether we are on the right track is how we are faring against other western nations. Preliminary research by the Ministry of Social Development suggests that New Zealand currently sits about the middle of the league table of child poverty in western nations. As part of our aim to end child poverty we need to significantly improve our ranking so that we sit alongside countries such as Norway and Denmark.

What’s required for success is for all those with a stake in this country’s future to move beyond the emotive aspects of the issue to analyse and act on all the contributing causes in a sustained way. Everyone in this room would agree that abolishing child poverty is a good idea. But good intentions are not sufficient. There have been plenty of good intentions on this issue in the past, yet the problem persists.

One of the main reasons why it persists is that we have a very poor idea of the dimensions of the problem we are facing.

Gaining an accurate picture of child poverty is more difficult than it appears and there are currently no official measures of poverty or deprivation in New Zealand. Poverty can be defined as not obtaining what is considered by New Zealanders to be a minimal acceptable standard of living.

We know that poverty is a multi-dimensional problem associated among other things with poor nutrition, health, housing and low income.

We know it can be measured in a variety of ways and that what is defined as an acceptable standard of living is likely to change over a period of time as our society changes.

We know little about the extent to which people are in poverty for long periods of time.

The Ministry of Social Development is currently developing new measures of poverty as a priority. We need a more up-to-date and comprehensive picture of the challenges we are facing. We need to build our understanding of the circumstances that poor children are living in.

Advances in our research and data collection will be a big step forward in tackling poverty and social exclusion. Unless we accurately scope the problem, we can’t properly target our initiatives, measure their effectiveness or make a compelling case for more funding.

Child Poverty Facts

So what do we know about child poverty in New Zealand?

One measure of poverty that we do have is data on family incomes that is gathered on a three-yearly basis as part of Statistics New Zealand’s Household Economic Survey. The last survey showed that anywhere between 6% and 29% of children were poor, depending on which poverty threshold was used.

The most recent data from June 2001 shows a complicated pattern of changes. There was a small decline in poverty at the lower income thresholds, and an equally small rise at the higher income thresholds.

I would expect that the next available statistics will paint a considerably more favourable picture. The timing of the recent survey and the fact that it considers the previous year’s income means that many of our recent initiatives, such as income-related rents, as well as recent falls in unemployment, are not fully captured in the latest figures.

The latest survey results show that child poverty is more likely in families where at least one parent is of Pacific or non-European ethnicity and to a lesser extent of Maori ethnicity. There are also particularly high rates of child poverty among children living in sole parent families, those whose parents are without work, those who live in rented accommodation and those whose parents have low or no qualifications. Having said this, up to half of all children in poverty live in families where at least one parent works. Up to two thirds live in families where both parents are present.

What else do we know about the circumstances that poor children are living in?

We know that poor families are more likely to have limited space for children to study or play, to postpone visits to the doctor and have trouble paying school fees and buying books.

We know that in one survey in 1997, 13 percent of New Zealanders said they could afford to feed themselves properly only some of the time.

We know that in 1996, 3.4 percent of New Zealanders lived in crowded households and that over 90% of these contained children.

Poverty impacts on the ability of people to learn, work and participate in their community. Most fundamentally, poverty deprives people of self-esteem, confidence and motivation. It robs them of their dignity.

What is being Done?

We are already tackling child poverty on a number of fronts.

One key aspect is social investment. That means investing in policies that lead to sustainable employment and reduce the risks of families falling into poverty. Such social investment will also provide a ladder for parents to climb out of economic hardship. Another aspect is protecting families from poverty and its long-term consequences, particularly through social assistance, health and education.

I’m pleased to report that we have never had more New Zealanders in employment, with unemployment now at a 14 year low. 104,000 new jobs have been created since March 2000 - that means thousands of families now have a working breadwinner. At the same time the numbers of people in workplace training, tertiary learning and Modern Apprenticeships are at record highs. These initiatives will deliver many more New Zealand families positive futures.

We have also increased the minimum wage, brought in new fairer labour law and are introducing paid parental leave, a move which will be of special benefit to children.

We have set aside $410 million over three years to substantially improve access to primary healthcare services that will make doctors’ visits more affordable for families of school-age children. We have committed up to $200 million to the Meningocccal Vaccine Strategy - striking a blow at a disease that affects far too many of our children - and Maori and Pacific children in particular.

The government is developing strategies to ensure that people have the education and training they need to secure a successful future for their families. Our first ever tertiary education strategy will enable many more New Zealanders to participate and achieve in tertiary learning. We are re-focusing Training Opportunities and Youth Training programmes to ensure people who are most disadvantaged have the foundation skills to gain sustainable employment.

Our adult literacy strategy, launched last year, is directly addressing one of the biggest barriers to employment and participation which many New Zealanders face. A 1996 survey found that a significant number of adults do not have the literacy skills to meet the demands of everyday life and almost 50 percent of unemployed New Zealanders have very low levels of literacy.

We are extending Modern Apprenticeships so that by December next year there will be 6,000 young New Zealanders who will have a flying start to a working life in industries where their skills are in high demand. Modern Apprenticeships have been welcomed by employers as an innovative way of meeting their needs and shaping the talent of a new generation. These are the types of opportunities we will continue to create.

In the area of youth transition, we are expanding innovative programmes such as Gateway that gives secondary students access to structured workplace learning opportunities while they are still at school.

We have introduced income-related rents for over 50,000 state house tenants with most saving between $20 and $80 a week. We have increased funding for community housing, are modifying state houses where there are worries about crowding or health issues, and are providing more homes.

The Path Forward

The question however remains, “Are we as a society doing enough to end child poverty?” and the answer, if we are honest, is that there is still more to be done.

The Government has started a broad review of the social assistance system, including Family Income Assistance. What is clear is that the answers to child poverty do not lie in time-limited benefits or further benefit cuts, as those on the right would have us believe. Instead I see parallels in the more enlightened policies of Europe, that recognise, as our own reforms do, the importance of opportunities and security.

Our aim as a Government is to ensure that we better meet the needs of families without work and to improve the returns from paid work for low-income families.

Currently the system is fragmented and complex, leaving families unsure about entitlement and nervous about taking a job. This is simply not good enough.

We know that many families with children are supported by a benefit at some stage in their lives. For many this is only during a brief period of temporary unemployment. For others, particularly families where the parents can’t work because they are looking after children or because they are in poor health, the need for financial support may last for a long time.

One of the most effective ways to prevent child poverty is to make sure their parents can find jobs that pay them well, train them well and provide support in areas such as transport and childcare. We are investing significantly to improve access to quality early childhood education so that parents can be confident their children are well looked-after while they work, and we are working to improve abatement regimes to ensure movement into work pays off for families.

But government acting alone cannot solve this problem. To end child poverty will require a substantial increase in commitment and concerted action, not just from Government but from all sectors of society - families, communities, businesses, iwi, Pacific peoples, migrant communities, employee groups, educators and decision-makers. There will be difficult choices to be made to achieve our goal and these choices will test our values.


Of all the areas we can invest in, what greater priority can we have than investing in our children? In all senses they are our future. In economic terms, they are our future workforce and our ageing population will be heavily reliant on their skills and talents. In social terms, every young New Zealander should have a childhood where their material, educational and emotional needs are properly met. Neglecting the needs of our children is a sure path to a divided and desperate society.

It has been said that the truest test of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. This Government has ushered in a new era of social development, fairness and opportunity for New Zealand families.

Over the coming years, let our treatment of children be a litmus test of the progress we are making as a fair, civilised and successful society.


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