The UN has said in a damning report that it is deeply concerned about New Zealand’s persistently high rates of child poverty.
Unicef says 300,000 children – a third of New Zealand’s child population – now live below the poverty line. This is a rise of 45,000 in a year.
Government representatives travelled to Geneva last month to present the country’s progress on its commitment to protecting the rights of the child to the UN.
The UN committee’s report acknowledges widespread public debate and media attention on child poverty in New Zealand, but expresses serious concern about the government’s failure to address the issue systematically.
“The committee is deeply concerned about the enduring high prevalence of poverty among children,” the report says, highlighting “the effect of deprivation on children’s right to an adequate standard of living and access to adequate housing, with its negative impact on health, survival and development, and education”.
The report expresses particular concern about the number of Maori and Pasifika children living in deprived circumstances. Both groups are disproportionately represented in child poverty statistics.
It calls for “urgent measures to address disparities in access to education, health services and a minimum standard of living for Maori and Pasifika children and their families” and says more effort should be invested in preserving Maori children’s cultural identity.
The government of the National party is urged to take a systematic approach to tackling child poverty, and to establish a “national definition” to measure child poverty, something it has repeatedly refused to do.
The Green party co-leader Metiria Turei welcomed the UN report. “The national government has repeatedly denied the seriousness of the problem and deserves the criticism it has received from the committee,” she said. “And that means thousands on NZ children are missing out on their chance for a decent life, especially Maori and Pasifika children.”
Labour’s spokesperson for children, Jacinda Ardern, agreed with the UN’s assessment and said “bold targets” to tackle the problem would be a good start.
“There is a huge amount of consensus in parliament around the need to take much more decisive action on child poverty, though sadly that consensus just hasn’t extended to the government,” she said.
The children’s commissioner, Andrew Becroft, challenged the government and opposition parties last week to cut child poverty rates by 10% by the end of 2017.
Labour and the Greens accepted the challenge, but the prime minister, John Key, said his government would not.
In August the government announced the creation of a new ministry for vulnerable children. Becroft has repeatedly said the name is stigmatising, and Ardern has said any ministry should cater to all children in New Zealand, not just the most vulnerable.
The UN report also suggests the government consider a different name for the ministry, and calls for the creation of a national database to collect information on the welfare of all New Zealand children, something the opposition parties have long campaigned for.
It recommends a second national database to record every act of abuse against children in New Zealand.
Anne Tolley, the minister for social affairs, said the government was considering the UN’s recommendations and work was already underway on how some of the suggested changes could be implemented.
However Tolley said child poverty was “too complex and multi-faceted to use just one measure”.
“We do accept there is an issue with children in hardship, and we’ve delivered on a promise to do something about it,” she said.
Tolley listed the introduction of free GP visits for those under 13, the kickstart breakfast program which provides 27,000 free breakfasts for school-age children every week and raincoats and shoes provided for needy children through Kidscan.
- The Guardian