Government must take the final step on Poverty

Alex Penk

Auckland, October 19, 2018

I was born at the tail-end of Gen X, so I grew up with a pop culture saturated by “Fear of Commitment,” perhaps best characterised by Joey and Chandler on Friends.

So, when I heard the Child Poverty Reduction Bill described by one expert as a “Commitment Device” intended to cement an unrelenting focus on child poverty into our politics, I could almost hear Chandler’s voice: “Could this Government be any more committed to tackling the issue?”

Well, actually, I think they can.

Targets and Reports

Let me illustrate. Persistent poverty, being stuck in poverty for long periods of time, is the kind that does the most harm, because over time the disadvantages associated with poverty have a devastating cumulative effect.

The Bill recognises this and sets out official targets and reports on persistent child poverty, but they don’t have to start until 2025.

Frankly, I think that is too long to wait, and bringing this timeframe forward was one of the main improvements we recommended when we submitted on the Bill, which has recently been reported on by one of Parliament’s Select Committees.

Primary Measures

Our submission was supportive in a “two cheers for the Bill” kind of way. We like the way the Bill creates a suite of poverty measures that will serve as official measurements and definitions. Too often, advocates of all stripes have been able to cherry-pick the various statistics to talk up or play down the problem to suit their cause.

With income and hardship measures ranked alongside each other as “primary measures,” this should be harder to do.

But we also submitted there were ways to improve the Bill to make it world-leading. First, we said that the Bill should include child poverty-related indicators, which measure factors associated with the causes and consequences of poverty, like housing, education, and health.

That is because poverty is not just about income or wealth—for policies to make a difference in people’s lives they must be informed and guided by measures that understand the complex pathways into poverty.

We are delighted that the Select Committee has listened to us and others and recommended including these indicators.

Tackling the issue

Second, we said more urgency was needed to tackle persistent poverty, also supposed to be a “primary measure” of poverty.

This matters because the other measures “do not distinguish between those passing through [poverty], those dipping in and out, and those languishing there for many years.” This urgency starts with defining persistent poverty and collecting the necessary data to measure it, ideally much sooner than 2025.

If there are technical issues with doing this, then we recommended adding a combined low income and material hardship measure as a “primary measure” instead, at least temporarily.

Cross-Party Support

The Bill will pass with cross-party support, and with the addition of the indicators I would now like to say two-and-a-half cheers for that.

But I would love to see the Government take the final step, to make the difficult but necessary commitment to measures that will focus attention and help on those with the greatest need.

Alex Penk is Chief Executive, Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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