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Officials disagree over child poverty action

Published: 5:04PM Sunday November 03, 2013 Source: ONE News

The Government says enshrining its action plan to tackle child poverty into law is the wrong approach despite one child expert saying the law is necessary.

It's estimated 270,000 New Zealand children are living on the breadline but with no official measure of the problem the Children's Commissioner is pushing for legislation.

"It's the youngest children who are most affected by poverty," Russell Wills says.

"You can look at the things that kids miss out on, like being able to afford to be able to go to the GP, shoes that fit, a raincoat, their own bed, those kinds of things. And that material deprivation really matters. That's what makes a big difference to education and health and social justice outcomes," Dr Wills told Q A this morning.

"The patients that I see typically have cold, damp houses...they often can't afford to do the basics that our kids would take for granted, like to go on school trips and have stationery and a uniform, shoes that fit...their houses really are in a shocking state. Most kids who are living in poverty live in private rentals, not state rentals but private rentals, and those houses are in appalling state.

"Having a warrant of fitness again is one of those very practical recommendations that the Expert Advisory Group recommended...we know that will make a big difference."

The Commissioner wants the Government to embed legislation that tackles the problem.

"In the UK they manage to get cross party support and agreement to have a plan, to have targets and make ministers and chief executives accountable," Mr Wills says.

But the Social Development Minister says times are changing are more flexibility is needed.

"It's what happens on the ground that matters most," Paula Bennett told Q+A.

"What is going to make the biggest difference for child tackling the tough stuff. That is long-term welfare dependence."

Finance Minister Bill English has ruled out actually measuring poverty because he said it makes no sense but Mr Wills says it is possible to have relative measures and absolute measures.

"They need to be kept up to date with inflation, so you take a baseline. It's called a fixed line measure...we look at severe poverty, we look at the ability of families to get out of poverty," the Commissioner says.

New Zealand's social mobility is "really low", Mr Wills says, adding that it's more difficult if you're born into a low-income family to get out of that than in many countries with lots of structural barriers.

"Other countries with similar GDP to us have lower rates of child poverty."

But Mr Wills says cross-party support is necessary for progress to be sustainable going forward.

"I think our political leaders do care about child poverty, no matter what hue they are, I think they do care, and I think that it's in them to have a joined-up plan for this."