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Labour’s courageous move on poverty

By Jeremy Vargo February 06, 2018

Labour’s announcement last week of the Child Poverty Reduction Bill was almost instantly hailed by many as a huge step forward, and derided as a big fuss over nothing by others. The truth of the matter is, this Bill is a huge step forward for a New Zealand Government, and leaves a lot of detail left to be worked out.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first piece of legislation as Minister for Child Poverty Reduction largely focuses on committing the Government to fixed points of measuring child poverty, and fixing goals to work towards in lowering the rates of child poverty in New Zealand. Critics have pointed out that the MSD and Children’s Commissioner have been producing very similar figures in annual reports; so, what’s new?

What’s new is a New Zealand Government that’s is willing to be held accountable to a full range of measures of child poverty

What’s new is a New Zealand Government that’s is willing to be held accountable to a full range of measures of child poverty. To understand why this is a big deal, it’s important to know that there are quite a number of ways to define and measure poverty, each of which capture a different nuance of what it actually means to be poor and struggle to make a life.

To compare just two: first, you can look at how much money a household gets in a year compared to the average income of the population, or second, you can measure how many material items that someone is missing out on, like food, transport, heating, or essential clothing items. Either of those would give you drastically different numbers of people who are in “poverty.” Which is why, if you’re in Government, and you see that based on the average income measure, fewer people are in poverty than last year, you can trumpet that your policies have been successful, even if the second measure shows that more people are missing out on the essentials of life.

The first step towards policies that will make a real difference in the lives of struggling New Zealanders is for the Government to commit to a definition and measurement of poverty across a suite of measures.

To prevent this kind of cherry-picking of positive statistics for political convenience, for years, researchers and experts on poverty (including Maxim Institute) have recommended that the first step towards policies that will make a real difference in the lives of struggling New Zealanders is for the Government to commit to a definition and measurement of poverty across a suite of measures.

While critics of the Bill are technically right in pointing out that it doesn’t say what the Government plans to actually do to solve child poverty, they’re ignoring the fact that this represents a huge step forward for Ardern’s Government into political and public accountability for the success or failure of all their future efforts to alleviate child poverty.

It is an admirable commitment that demonstrates that Ardern has the courage to be held accountable to her promises on child poverty.

That’s an incredibly risky step given how complex poverty is in its causes and how hard it will be to create policy solutions that will change the statistics, which will now be very public. But it is an admirable commitment that demonstrates that Ardern has the courage to be held accountable to her promises on child poverty. I look forward to seeing the next steps of the plan.

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