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Counting children living in poverty

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 6/10/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

Governments don't like committing to anything they're not sure they can achieve, and that can be counted.

That's why Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft isn't going to get the political consensus he has asked for.

Becroft wants the government and the opposition to agree on a formula for working out how many children are living in poverty, and then commit to reducing that number by five per cent to 10 per cent a year.

"The debate is bedevilled by cross-talking," said Becroft.

"If only we could agree on a rate, then we could set a target - we need some doable, agreed policies."

Becroft favours a formula called the material deprivation rate.

As he explains it, there are 17 criteria and if children are in families with more than six of those, they're materially deprived.

Using that formula, he puts the number of children living in poverty at 149,000.

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister John Key doesn't think that having "one single measure of poverty" is a good way of looking at the issue.

"My much stronger preference is to worry about the individual children rather than saying the number is x or y - you can have that debate all you like but I don't think it achieves much," he said.

It was in this context that Key used his unfortunate comment about it being easier to count rats than children in poverty, and said the government typically relies on a figure of 60,000 to 100,000 children suffering pronounced levels of deprivation.

He's been roundly condemned by Labour, even accused of cowardice, for declining Becroft's challenge.

Labour leader Andrew Little says he does accept the challenge, but then it's always easier for parties in opposition to say what they'll achieve if voters just give them the chance.

He accepts Becroft's 149,000 figure, although he says it's far less than Labour's estimates.

"Labour will work with any party that is committed to ending child poverty," said Little.

He has personally made a commitment to end child poverty, more than once, and if he does become prime minister he'll be endlessly reminded of it.

Becroft thinks that's a tad over-ambitious, and Little accepts he would be lucky to achieve it within two parliamentary terms - six years.

Labour is still developing a policy, apparently based on its 2014 commitment to give every family with a newborn baby $60 a week for the first year of the child's life.

United Future's Peter Dunne has gone further than the government or Labour.

He wants a Child Poverty Act put into law.

"We need to move beyond quibbling over the definitions of poverty and move towards a legislative framework that paves the way for current and future governments to meaningfully make the lives of New Zealand children better," said Dunne.

He cites legislation passed in Britain in 2010 with cross-party support.

Under the UK's Child Poverty Act the government must release a national child poverty strategy every three years, setting out its case on how it is reducing poverty and identifying key policy areas that create change.

It established measures for child poverty and set reduction targets, which ended arguments over definitions.

So Britain has done it. In New Zealand it's in the too hard basket.

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