The Impact of COVID-19 on Child Poverty in New Zealand
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand and its former Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, have received continuous praise for their response and action. The country’s strategy against COVID-19 proved to be one of the most successful in the world. New Zealand not only avoided high death rates but saw an increase in life expectancy during the first 18 months of the pandemic. However, while the nation’s strategy proved a success in terms of reducing mortality rates, the impact of COVID-19 on child poverty in New Zealand can still be felt.
The pandemic’s impact upon poverty did not come as a surprise. The Executive Director of UNICEF NZ, Vivien Maidaborn, spoke of her awareness of the threat in the early stages of COVID-19, stating, “the coronavirus pandemic…has triggered an unprecedented socio-economic crisis that threatens to roll back years of progress in reducing child poverty.” Heidi Coetzee, Chief Executive of Save the Children New Zealand, also recognized that “continued investment (would) be needed to ensure protections for (New Zealand’s) children.”
Indeed, the first year of the pandemic pushed 18,000 New Zealand children into poverty, according to the Guardian. Ronji Tanielu, a New Zealand social policy analyst, has been outspoken about the country’s failure to address poverty during the pandemic, stating, “the cracks that were in society before Covid…got worse during Covid.” Similarly, while some argue that, against the backdrop of the pandemic, the increase in New Zealand’s poverty was out of government control, the Child Poverty Action Group sees “government neglect” as the primary reason that poverty rose during COVID-19.
Where some see failure, however, Ardern, who served as New Zealand’s Prime Minister through January 2023, sees success. She compares the impact of COVID-19 to that of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that occurred a decade earlier. Though both saw an increase in poverty, the rise during the GFC was much more alarming–a reported 145,000 fewer children suffered from poverty during the pandemic than during the GFC. Ardern attributes this to the government actions taken to reduce poverty throughout the pandemic, which have included:
- The Families Package: Introduced in 2018 as a direct response to poverty faced by families in New Zealand, the initiative led to a three-year downward trend in child poverty following its spike at the onset of the pandemic.
- Minimum Wage and Benefit Increases: As part of New Zealand’s COVID-19 Recovery Package, main benefits were increased by an additional $25 per week to aid families fighting poverty, and 2022 saw a record-breaking increase of 7.4% in hourly earnings.
- Ka Ora, Ka Ako | Healthy School Lunches Programme: Initially formed in early 2019 to provide primary school children with nutritious lunches every day, Ka Ora, Ka Ako expanded to incorporate secondary schools in response to COVID-19. Not only has the programme helped feed an estimated 220,000 students, it has also provided an estimated 2,300 jobs, tackling the intertwined threats of starvation and unemployment posed by poverty.
The positive impacts of such initiatives are undeniable. The director of the Salvation Army’s Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit, Ian Hutson, has acknowledged that, though child poverty was “unacceptably high” to start with, they have contributed to “limited but steady progress” in addressing the country’s child poverty.
The impact of COVID-19 on child poverty in New Zealand has been significant. As Tanielu acknowledges, this is an issue that “could take generations to fix.” Yet, while, as Ardern admits, “there is more work to do,” there has also been progress in preventing “the spike in poverty (seen) during the Global Financial Crisis a decade ago.”
– Jenny Boxall