WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Seen as a wealthy and welcoming nation in a small corner of the South Pacific, New Zealand has topped the Global Prosperity Index for the past four years running. It has a stable GDP per capita between that of Italy and Japan, and significant pockets of wealth and prosperity, particularly in its major cities. But behind its farming, blockbuster films and natural wonders there is a crisis of inequality and deprivation among New Zealand’s most vulnerable.
The number of children living in poverty in New Zealand is double what it was in 1984, and 90,000 cases are considered severe. For developed nations, UNICEF uses a poverty line below 60 percent of median income after housing costs. By this measure, an estimated 28 percent of New Zealand children under 17 were living in income poverty in 2015 – almost 300,000 young people.
This must decrease to 13.5 percent by 2030 if New Zealand is to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal target of halving 2015 national poverty rates. In 2014, then-prime minister John Key said addressing this crisis would be a priority for his government, with a focus on moving people off government benefits and into work.
But a blanket program of work over benefits hasn’t worked, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Of the children living in poverty in New Zealand, 37 percent are in households with working parents, which means that paid work is not necessarily a viable solution for many families.
The New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services says this policy reflects a government that puts economic growth above inequality and poverty in New Zealand. Government benefits are difficult to access and are insufficient to support a family, and there is a lack of state housing for those who cannot find accommodation. This at a time when New Zealand is experiencing the fastest growth in rental prices in the world, and one in every hundred New Zealanders is homeless.
Like many wealthy nations, New Zealand has significant inequality of wealth. Journalist and author Max Rashbrooke presents data showing that the poorest 50 percent of New Zealanders have just four percent of the wealth, while the wealthiest 10 percent own more than half.
Rashbrooke says New Zealand’s government does not pay enough to beneficiaries but could do so with better tax structures. There is no tax in New Zealand on “wealth, gifts, inheritances or, except in limited circumstances, gains made from selling assets,” Rashbrooke says.
In October 2016, a U.N. report criticized the New Zealand government’s inaction on child poverty. Its report stated a further 45,000 children had fallen into poverty in the past year.
New Zealand’s social affairs minister Anne Tolley said at the time that the government accepted the “issue with children in hardship” and had delivered on its promise to address it with health care subsidies for children under 13, and the provision of 27,000 free breakfasts for school-age children every week.
In an interview with the Guardian, Auckland University associate professor of social work Michael Anthony O’Brien said the government was “doing as little as they can get away with… the most significant action they’ve taken is increasing the benefit by about $25 (USD$17) a week for beneficiaries with kids. That’s it.”
Opposition party spokesperson for children Jacinda Ardern said there was a consensus among progressive parties that bold action was required to address child poverty in New Zealand, “though sadly that consensus just hasn’t extended to the government.”
Immediate solutions have been proposed by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC). The commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, challenged the government and opposition parties last year to reduce child poverty by 10 percent by the end of 2017. Key said his government would not accept the challenge.
The OCC recommends implementing a core framework for monitoring and assessing child poverty in New Zealand, along with more immediate actions aimed at fundamental community support. These include minimum standards for rental accommodation, the development of community hubs and partnerships for micro-financing, and the expansion of food-in-schools programs. The OCC said lessons could be learned from “prudent policy” decisions in Australia, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Like many prosperous nations around the world, New Zealand is performing remarkably well by some measures. Paradoxically, the wealth and success of the country as a whole can make poverty in New Zealand more complex than in developing countries, as so many refuse to acknowledge it as a serious problem. With continued dialogue and advocacy and the implementation of compassionate government policies, tens of thousands of young New Zealanders can be given a chance to improve their circumstances and pursue the kind of prosperity already enjoyed by so many.
– Brendan McBryde