Poverty affects children at all stages of life

Findings of a new study released by the University of Auckland this week show that almost one in five secondary school students and nearly half of all Pacific school students in New Zealand are living in poverty.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says that this kind of research is important to further demonstrate the magnitude of poverty in New Zealand, and the impacts on our young people.

The University of Auckland study surveyed randomly selected individual teenagers in schools around New Zealand. They grouped students by household poverty based on nine indicators of deprivation, including having no parent in paid employment, no car and no computer. The students needed to report two or more indicators before they were classified as experiencing poverty, Fifteen per cent of children showed the effects of unaffordable housing and moderate levels of being unable to afford basic necessities, and a further five percent affected by very high levels of material hardship. Maori and Pacific students are disproportionately represented in these figures.

The study is evidence that economic poverty matters for children right throughout their formative years and into their higher education, and it affects large numbers of teenagers. Material hardship can have a serious impact upon the learning experience of young Kiwis, as they may not have equal access to the same learning equipment as their peers. This is why it is critical that schools are well-enough resourced to respond to the needs of children from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Secondary school students living in poverty may find that achieving their potential level with NCEA is much more difficult, as barriers to success include inability to afford equipment and exam fees. 

The study also shows a link between poverty and rates of depression, smoking and obesity among high school students, evidencing that poverty has a serious long-term effect upon health and well-being outcomes. 

This data is especially important because it corroborates the high levels of material hardship among children under 18 years found in the Household Incomes Surveys published annually by the Ministry of Social Development - two different methods, very similar results.

"The evidence is there, our children are being affected now but we have yet to see any comprehensive plan to address child poverty in New Zealand," says Dr Nikki Turner, CPAG spokesperson for health.

CPAG agrees with Dr Simon Denny in that policies should be better geared towards addressing household poverty.

The first step to addressing household poverty is to improve incomes through Working for Families tax credits which are intended for low-income families, by removing the barrier of set hours of work so that the $72.50 of the In-Work Tax Credit is available to all low-income families irrespective of their number of hours worked, and the age of dependent children. Overnight, this would make a huge and powerful difference to the lives of thousands of the worst-off children and is consistent with the Government's stated commitment to responding to child poverty.