Dominion Post Editorial: Governments can reduce poverty if they really want to

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Prime Minister John Key believes in setting goals and measuring progress. In 2012, speaking about education standards, he said, “If you don’t measure, monitor and report on things, I don’t think you can make progress.”

But he doesn’t apply the same standard to measuring or monitoring child poverty, which is at least as important as education standards. He says child poverty is too hard to measure, that it’s somehow “airy-fairy”, and that measuring pests like stoats and weasels is much easier.

None of this is persuasive. It is true that the measurement of child poverty is more complicated than counting stoats or kiwis. But governments can’t avoid doing things just because they are difficult. And in fact governments do measure poverty and monitor progress in fighting it.

Britain’s Conservative Government has done this since 2010 following a bi-partisan agreement with other parties. If Britain can do it, so can New Zealand.

Child poverty, it hardly needs saying, is not only a great social evil, it is a dreadfully expensive one. Children raised in poverty are more likely to fail in all areas of life, and taxpayers must fund that failure. Child poverty costs a fortune in increased spending on jails, social welfare benefits and health budgets. It costs money in lost production and economic inefficiency.

Peter Dunne has called for bipartisan action on this subject, and most people will just dismiss his call. It’s all too easy for insignificant political parties to play the bipartisan song; it elevates their own role into something more important than it is.

But Dunne is right about child poverty. It’s too important to be left to point-scoring politicians.

Cynics will say bipartisanship is impossible, but it’s not. All the main parties broadly support the treaty settlement process, for instance. There has been a broad consensus for a generation over the anti-nuclear policy.

And governments can reduce poverty if they really want to. Child poverty expert Jonathan Boston points out that poverty among the elderly in New Zealand is low by international standards, while poverty among children is embarrassingly high.

New Zealand parties have reached a kind of rough consensus over national superannuation levels, perhaps the major reason for the lack of poverty among older people. We must be able to do something similar for children.

Britain’s Child Poverty Act has a number of agreed definitions of poverty and requires governments to show progress in each area. There is plenty of room for disagreement about how to measure poverty. But it must include both low income and a measure of “material deprivation”, such as lack of heating in the home, inadequate food and lack of warm clothes.

Housing costs are an increasingly important part of poverty and perhaps help explain why the Key Government is so reluctant to measure in this area when it is so enthusiastic about setting goals and measuring achievements in so many others.

Poverty springs from many sources, and reducing poverty will require action on many fronts. And housing affordability is one of the Government’s most glaring failures.


– The Dominion Post