Poorly Understood: The state of poverty in New Zealand

Jenesa Jeram
Insights Newsletter
26 February, 2016

Poverty may be one of the most reported about and argued about topics in New Zealand. It also might be one of the most poorly understood topics.

Hence the title of The New Zealand Initiative’s latest report: Poorly Understood: The state of poverty in New Zealand. Joining a range of other organisations, advocacy groups and academics, we hope our addition to the literature will strengthen public debate and understanding of the topic.

While numerous organisations have written on poverty, everyone views it through a slightly different lens. As our report argues, poverty is an emotive term and is necessarily subjective. We highlight the extent to such subjectivity, and the complexity in finding solutions.

After all, how does one define poverty in a developed country like New Zealand? Obesity, for example, is more likely to be associated with poverty than starvation. There are symptoms of poverty here that are not characterised elsewhere.

The measurement of poverty matters too. The fact New Zealand collects evidence on a range of measures is a real strength for those interested in evidence-based policy. But it can also over-simplify the issue, as people cherry-pick their most favoured measure or statistic.

There are relative income or wealth measures which indicate inequality, but are often used synonymously as poverty statistics. Then there are material hardship measures, which can better reflect the sacrifices a household must make because money was needed for other essentials. There are also before housing costs and after housing costs measures, which are all the more salient given the housing affordability problem in New Zealand.

While reporting on poverty is much easier when you can definitively say that a certain number of people are in poverty, and that poverty is getting better or worse over time, the evidence is more nuanced. Different measures reflect different personal or political priorities.

Our report also discusses factors contributing to poverty, acknowledging the difficulties in establishing causes. An example is the popular claim that poverty is caused by low income or benefit levels. But not having enough money is also a symptom of poverty. Low income cannot be the sole cause and definition of a problem.

Of course, this is just a small snapshot of a big issue. But we hope that this report will be a step towards better conversations on poverty, better understanding of the evidence, and more effective ways of helping society’s most vulnerable.

Poorly Understood: The state of poverty in New Zealand was co-authored by Dr Bryce Wilkinson and Jenesa Jeram. The report and two-page summary are available here.

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