Historic child poverty agreement a cause for hope

Professor Jonathan Boston from the School of Government explains the significance of the Child Poverty Reduction Act.

Child Poverty Reduction Bill

Last week the National Party confirmed that it would support the prime minister's Child Poverty Reduction Bill, albeit with amendments. This announcement is of historic significance. It is the first time in New Zealand's history that there has been an explicit cross-party agreement to enact legislation designed to achieve significant and sustained reductions in child poverty.

Indeed, formal multi-party agreements on major social policy issues are relatively rare in New Zealand. A notable exception occurred in 1993. After years of controversy over pensions, there was a multi-party agreement on the policy framework for New Zealand Superannuation. For a generation, this agreement has helped ensure that elder poverty and material hardship are low by international standards. Undoubtedly, this is something to celebrate.

But children in New Zealand have never enjoyed the same kind of cross-party support. Partly as a result, rates of child poverty and material hardship, on a range of measures, have been consistently higher than for the population as a whole – and several times higher than for our elderly.

Hopefully, this situation will change over the coming years.

The prime minister's bill imposes at least four obligations on governments.

First, poverty rates must be measured and reported annually. Responsibility for the measurement framework lies with the Government Statistician. The bill requires poverty to be measured in at least 10 ways, as no single measure is sufficient to give a full picture. Four primary measures are specified in the legislation, together with six supplementary measures.

Collectively, these will provide a comprehensive overview of the levels of both income-based poverty and material hardship in poor families. Importantly, this will include the measurement of poverty persistence, once the necessary mechanisms for assessing duration are implemented.

Second, the government must set targets for each of the four primary measures. The bill requires both medium-term and long-term targets. Governments are at liberty to select whatever targets they wish. But of course they will be politically accountable – both for their level of ambition and whether their goals are achieved

Third, the bill requires governments to identify and monitor progress with respect to a number of child poverty-related indicators. These might cover such matters as housing conditions, levels of educational attainment, and child health outcomes. Having a broad range of reliable information of this nature – which was strongly advocated by National – will be highly desirable.

Fourth, governments must publish periodic strategies for improving the well-being of children. Such strategies must help New Zealand to meet its international obligations under various United Nations conventions. They must also have regard to several specified policy-related principles and child-related principles. For instance, each strategy must be based on sound evidence, seek to minimise negative outcomes, and be properly evaluated.

Significantly, too, the bill imposes a duty on the government to consult children and Māori in preparing its well-being strategy. The proposed statutory requirement to consult children is unprecedented.

Some observers claim the bill will not directly help any children. But such objections miss the point. The bill is a political "commitment device". It is not a food parcel. Nor is it a quick fix.

Rather, it signals Parliament's intention to tackle a serious, long-term social problem and to hold governments to account for the success or otherwise of their endeavours. The effectiveness of the legislation will depend on the policies adopted and the quality of our democracy in holding governments accountable.

The proposed legislative framework for child poverty measurement, monitoring, reporting, and strategising is arguably world class. It will help ensure that high-quality evidence is available to inform public debate and policy-making.

Fortunately, too, the proposed framework has wide community support. This reflects years of patient work by many advocates for children, researchers, government officials, and politicians. Recent commissioners for children, notably Dr Russell Wills and Judge Andrew Becroft, deserve particular mention. They have provided remarkable leadership on behalf of the nation's children, carefully, consistently, and firmly arguing the case for regulatory and policy reform.

Now the challenge is to put flesh on the government's legislative bone. Reducing child poverty in a significant and sustained manner will require a comprehensive package of reforms. To be effective, the core elements of this package will need cross-party support. And this, in turn, will require political leadership and a willingness to compromisem.

At least two elements of this package will be crucial. First, we need agreement on a minimum floor of income adequacy for all families. Once agreed, this floor should be properly indexed to both prices and wages, as for New Zealand Superannuation. Second, we need policies which directly benefit children – that is, well-designed, in-kind, child-centred measures. Examples could include the public provision of lunch in many, or all, primary schools, higher subsidies for childcare and after-school care, publicly funded leave arrangements to enable working parents to care for sick children, and reform of child support arrangements.

Such changes will require additional public expenditure. But reducing child poverty makes sense both morally and economically. It would constitute a wise investment in New Zealand's future prosperity and social cohesion.

Jonathon Boston is Professor of Public Policy at the Victoria University of Wellington's School of Government, and former co-chair of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty.

Read the original article in the Dominion Post