In the run up to the election, groups wanting the government to solve child poverty have been very active. A mix of academics, political activists, religious lobby groups etc. say that 200,000 New Zealand children are living in poverty thereby significantly increasing their risks of poor health, educational and social outcomes.
But who are these children? The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), authors of the latest report, Left Further Behind, are not specific about the group’s composition. They make observations like, “The[se] poorest children in New Zealand are found disproportionately in sole parent households…” and “Māori children are twice as likely as Pākehā to be living in a poor household … a fact the report identifies as reflecting the relatively high proportion of Maori children living in sole parent beneficiary families and households.” Some of the children also live in two-parent working households apparently.
Other sources, The Child Health Monitor 2011 for instance, provide further clues. It records that in April 2011 children reliant on the DPB numbered 180,845. Also, “During 2009, 75% of all households (including those with and without children) relying on income-tested benefits as their main source of income were living below the poverty line.”
Assuming an unchanged proportion, 75% of the 180,845 DPB-dependent children are living below the poverty line; around 135,600. So two thirds of the child poverty problem relates to DPB reliance.
Recent Ministry of Social Development research into sole parents on benefits found,"The research considered all sole parents in receipt of a main benefit at 31 December 2005 – around 114,000 people. Of this group: just over half had spent at least 80% of the history period supported by main benefits; a third appeared to have become parents in their teens."
Importantly, a third is a minimum estimate due to the method of calculation. The research also found that the ‘early starters’ tended to have larger families, more debt and greater hardship. Putting together the pieces thus far, conservatively 60,000 of the children living in poverty belong in welfare families which sprang from a teenage birth.
Surprisingly CPAG’s report mentions teen births just once and then only as an OECD indicator of child well-being, not as a significant source of child poverty.
The CPAG’s approach is one of government responsibility after the fact. It chides the Welfare Working Group for over-emphasising individual responsibilities rather than human rights. CPAG’s attention is on their cure - a greater shift of wealth into these families – and not prevention.
Given the increasing ability of young people to avoid early births, that is odd. Young people across socio-economic levels are having relationships and sex. But most of the births to teenagers occur in the poorest deciles – 56 percent in the lowest three and 23 percent in the poorest. Poor, uneducated girls have less to lose when choosing or failing to avoid premature parenthood. A benefit will pay equal to or more than working full time at the minimum wage.
Yet the major recommendation advanced by CPAG is to increase benefits. Given the above set of circumstances, it isn’t difficult to anticipate what raising benefits may do. Increase the number of children on benefits.
Does that matter? Yes. When the Ministry of Social Development studied whether the source of income mattered to the living standards of poor children in benefit households versus poor children in working households they found that, "The results demonstrate that there is considerable variation in the living standards of those below the poverty threshold, and suggest that poor children in families with government transfers as the main income source are a particularly vulnerable group...Poor children whose families are primarily reliant on market income are in an intermediate position."
This indicates that poverty, of itself, isn’t necessarily the problem. Yet CPAG, and their counterparts, seem quite reluctant to pin down the 200,000 children by family structure, employment status or ethnicity.
They certainly aren’t interested in a discussion about the long-term impacts of New Zealand’s high teenage birth rate, especially among Maori. If they were, a report into reducing child poverty would be the very place to have it.