Addressing child poverty and working to eradicate extreme poverty for all kiwi kids is crucial for the health of our future generations. New Zealand’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) means we must work towards reaching SGD 1: ‘No Poverty’, which pushes the nation to reduce – at least by half – the proportion of children of all ages living in poverty by 2030.
Children are not at the forefront of this pandemic. However, The COVID-19 outbreak is expanding and deepening inequities for children and youth across the globe, worsening child poverty.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, as at October 5th 2020, the recovery rates from the virus painted a promising picture with 235 of the 241 children (aged 0-19 years) diagnosed with COVID-19 having recovered. But the virus has shone a light on, and in some situations aggravated, existing issues and inequities for children across the nation.
In pre-COVID-19 times there was an existing urgency to fight the nation’s high rate of children facing poverty. In 2019, approximately one in seven children (168,500 total) were living in poor households. ‘Living in poverty’, according to one official measure used by StatsNZ, refers to households with incomes less than half of the median disposable household income before housing costs (BHC).
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government was fast approaching its 2021 BHC target. With support from the Government Families Package, 384,000 families had their incomes increased by an average of $65 a week.
Other initiatives were put in place to enforce the Child Youth and Wellbeing Strategy, such as the Free and Healthy School Lunch Programme where 200,000 children were predicted to be receiving free school lunches by the third school term of 2021. But devastatingly, with the economic blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts could be reversed.
The long-term impact of border closures and the projected recession has put a halt to progress towards dropping child poverty levels. This economic shock is predicted to place 70,000 more children into poverty.
Work from professionals, including the Director of the Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families and Children Awhi Rito at Victoria University of Wellington, Dr Kate Prickett, makes it apparent that those most impacted were low-income households:
- Of households with children where at least one parent was working before the recent lockdown, 51% experienced an economic shock from a provider losing their job or source of income.
- Of working families already below the median household income, 60% reported experiencing an economic shock.
Numbers from the children’s charity, Variety New Zealand, report that they also feel this resonance with their Kiwi Kids Sponsorship Programme seeing a 23% increase in the number of applications, compared to five months prior.
The health, education and future career outcomes of children are greatly influenced by their household’s income. Therefore, as well as immediate deprivation, kids who grow up in poorer homes suffer the most long-term effects, which may see children unable to fully realise their potential later in life, thus perpetuating vicious cycles of intergenerational poverty. Variety New Zealand CEO states:
Working towards ending poverty is in no way an easy task. But by working towards our SDG 1, New Zealand’s children will have a better shot at living greater, healthier and more fair lives.
There have been many painful outcomes of COVID, including making evident the damage that inequality does in the world and Aotearoa. But, there are valuable lessons that can be taken from this experience.
What have we learned and how we can respond by listening to children and considering their rights and wellbeing?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak hit Aotearoa, the government produced some transformative policies in the forms of temporary and permanent responses. If there is a hopeful prospect, it is that the government’s short-term policy responses to the virus previewed what transformative policies should look like.
The Government sprung into action to implement a number of initial income support measures from 1st of April, the main example being the COVID-19 Relief and Recovery initiatives. This involved increasing benefits and supporting businesses and their staff through the employer Wage Subsidy Scheme. On top of this, as a part of the Budget 2020, the Government’s expansion of their Free and Health School Lunch Programme, as mentioned before, will open up 2000 new jobs. These policies may not have been perfect, but this swift action prevented many tens of thousands of households from falling into poverty almost overnight.
One of the silver linings we can see during this time is that the pandemic has proven that the nation is capable of doing things differently and swiftly. The NZ Government has moved quickly to implement a range of measures and support systems, showing its ability to react instantly for some of its most vulnerable children, while immediate help for issues like household incomes are being addressed.
However, we must continue to work towards the SDG 1 and prepare for longer-term recovery. It will take time before we see the full extent of the impacts of COVID-19 for children and young people. We must listen to their needs to create a future-ready response to this ongoing pandemic.