Felix Drissner-Devine attended a discussion about child poverty in New Zealand with Dr Russell Wills, Children’s Commissioner. The round table discussion was an initiative of the Productivity Commission and was held on Tuesday, 17 May 2016. Felix talks about his experience – read below!

15 floors above the affluence of Lambton Quay, I heard the outgoing Children’s Commissioner speak and respond to questions on the topic of child poverty. Dr Russell Wills took to the floor to discuss with us the outcome of his five-year term.

The facts that no longer surprise me were repeated. The circular nature of poverty was again highlighted. Our poor housing leaves 42,000 of our children in hospital each year. 15 of our children die each year from poverty related diseases. 50% of Pasifika children live in overcrowded housing. We are allowing the divide to grow between our poorest and richest neighbourhoods. 90% of children who go through CYFs care will be on the benefit before they are 21. Just over half of Māori children leave school without NCEA level two. Only one in five children who go through CYFs care will gain NCEA level two. If we are determined to look at the situation objectively, by around 2025 we will have the same amount of people leaving the labour market as we will have entering it, meaning increased labour costs and consequently inflation. We were told that business leaders have repeatedly outlined the lack of available talent as the largest constraint on their business. Our current system is not working – we have allowed it to get worse. Without change the cyclical nature of poverty will affect a new generation. The lack of adequate income and suitable housing will push the adverse effects, such as poor education outcomes and poverty-related illnesses, onto New Zealanders yet again. With the status quo, we can expect to see this repeated.

Despite this, our attitudes towards poverty are changing. Surveys show poverty has become New Zealand’s top issue, above the economy and above immigration/population changes. Child poverty was listed on all but one of the sitting political parties’ policy lists. Media outlets and personalities such as John Campbell and Mike Hoskings are responding to the issue. Despite ideological differences, we are unanimously seeing the damage. The Children’s Commissioner was adamant that our views of poverty were changing positively, but it was clear that more change needs to occur. One participant focused her question on our admittance of poverty, questioning our continually blaming child poverty on the parents. Surely all these parents can’t all be to blame on an individual level for this widespread deprivation? Hopefully we will see this view dissipate with the advent of further reporting of information surrounding poverty in New Zealand. While we have reached a consensus on poverty as an issue, a consensus on how we should intervene to make housing affordable is yet to be reached.

This change in attitude will demand response. The current government debt restricts its ability to increase incomes and decrease poverty safely alone, without raising taxes. However, it was established that the parties in government should have a targeted goal in terms of poverty. With the meeting or failing of the goal, the parties should take responsibility for the outcome irrespective of the ideology involved. Data collection in government departments now enables us to see where the greatest return on social welfare investment has been, where the greatest inequalities are, where the greatest harm is incurred and where the most support is needed.

The talk highlighted the need for a collective solution. As a group, TacklingPovertyNZ listed this as one of our outcomes from our workshop and it is reassuring that we aren’t alone in thinking this. It was suggested that a web of central and local government, NGOs, business, families, communities and philanthropy is the solution, each carrying out an individual and specialized role. Under this model, businesses would employ and empower a selection of the community who they see need the most help. One example is local NGOs liaising with Housing New Zealand to investigate how to go about new construction tailored to an area. Another is philanthropists or community groups engaging with schools to feed children. Different communities would therefore receive different non-government interventions.

We can all see the costs of not changing. We should reflect on the hurt poverty causes – we have to break the cycle of poverty caused by a lack of adequate income and suitable housing. What we have seen is a failure of system designed to help. This session showed me the need and increasing demand for change to reduce poverty in New Zealand.

After the meeting I quickly chatted to Dr Wills. He captured the urgency of poverty reduction in one statement: ‘The status quo is not an option.’

Dr Russell Wills is giving his last talk on child poverty on Tuesday, 31 May 2016. We highly recommend this event to those interested in tackling poverty in New Zealand:

‘Are we there yet?: Five years on the road to addressing child poverty’
Date: Tuesday 31st May
Time: 12:30 – 1:30pm
Location: Old Government Buildings Lecture Theatre 3
RSVP: igps@vuw.ac.nz


20160513 Felix and NZ Productivity Commission 2

Dr Russell Wills, Children’s Commission, and Felix Drissner-Devine.


View Dr Russell Wills’ presentation slides below. To see more TacklingPovertyNZ resoruces go to our website.

Are we there yet?: Five years on the road to addressing child poverty

Dr Russell Wills – Children’s Commissioner – May 2016 (presentation slides)


The TacklingPovertyNZ participants are going on tour. Please sign up to receive the Institutes’s two-monthly newsletter here or visit our website to learn more about the TacklingPovertyNZ workshops in 2016