“Skyrocketing” rhetoric no good for struggling families
Strong words were exchanged in Parliament and in the media following the release of MSD’s annual Household Incomes Report and the companion hardship report.
The Green Party called the “skyrocketing child poverty” figures a “human disaster,” a “damning indictment” of the Government. Green Party MP Jan Logie confronted Minister for Social Development Anne Tolley during question time, asking why “there are now an additional 45,000 New Zealand children living in poverty.” Tolley wasn’t impressed, and labeled Logie’s perspective “a gross and serious misrepresentation of the report that was released today.”
Presumably tired of how his annual report is used and abused to score cheap political points, the report’s author Bryan Perry went to considerable efforts this year to outline what the reports do and do not say. He clarifies:
“…it is often said that ‘There are 270,000 (300,000) children in poverty in New Zealand’, or similar. This claim is often attributed implicitly or explicitly to the Incomes Report as if that is the report’s definitive view. That is not correct. While it is true that [it] is one figure given in the range of income poverty figures reported, the Incomes Report does not support such a bald definitive claim that is misleadingly matter-of-fact.”
Hungry for headlines, newspapers and non-profits alike joined Logie in breaching this clear imperative on the day of release. Getting the full picture on poverty is complex; the truth doesn’t fit into a headline. There is no one measure to rule them all. Moreover, relying on a small statistical shift between two years is unreliable. A better story can be found by looking at trends across the full range of measures, over several years.
Let’s consider the child poverty figures more closely. The relative measurement that Logie refers to relies heavily on the median income as a yardstick for the living standards of everyday New Zealanders. If the median income rises while the incomes of those struggling do not, the poverty rate will rise. The report states that the increase in the fully relative poverty rates “is driven almost entirely by the rise in the median.” Indeed, the median income rose by five per cent, a figure that Perry claims is “likely to be a year on year statistical blip.”
Beyond the blips, longer-run trends are modest but important. Since the global financial crisis there’s been a slight increase in poverty rates on most measures, even a slight downward trend on one. “Material hardship” figures which measure families who are missing out on things most others take for granted are trending slightly downward or remaining stable.
While these developments are no reason to crack out the champagne, they are neither “skyrocketing,” nor a “disaster.” There’s actually some good news here, but we can always do better. No matter which measures are used, the reality is that too many families are doing it tough. Over the top rhetoric and misrepresentations of the data will not help them.