By Eric Crampton 15/06/2017

UNICEF’s new report has made for some damning headlines about child outcomes in New Zealand. In a few cases the critique is deserved; in a few others, it needs a bit of context.

UNICEF finds that fewer New Zealand live in relative income poverty than is the OECD average, in 2014 data. It is worth remembering that there is a sharp gap between those figures as measured before- and after- housing costs. If relative income poverty is measured after taking into account the costs of housing, the proportion of children in relative income poverty rises by about a third according to Ministry of Social Development 2015 figures. Since housing costs are a more substantial problem in New Zealand than in most other countries surveyed, UNICEF may be understating the seriousness of the problem in New Zealand as they appear to be using before housing cost figures. But it is a bit difficult to tell, since none of their numbers match up with the MSD figures.

In many cases, New Zealand is not included in international comparison because New Zealand’s figures are not reported in ways that make international comparisons easy. But we can usefully look to the closest available New Zealand measures.

UNICEF leaves New Zealand out of its measure of multidimensional hardship. MSD’s 2015 figures had material hardship, by the EU-13 standard, below the EU or OECD median when measured for the population as a whole, but slightly above it when measured for those aged below 17. This is due in part to New Zealand’s decision to provide more substantial income transfers to the elderly, through superannuation, than to children. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s figures on material deprivation only go back to 2007. The proportion of children both income poor and materially deprived rose during the GFC and has since returned to roughly pre-GFC levels. Figure G.6 in Perry is copied below.


Similarly, while there is no recent official data on youth (aged 11-15 years) alcohol abuse, recent trends for those aged 15-18 have shown substantial declines in youth drinking. In the 2006/7 survey, 74.5% of youths aged 15-17 reported having consumed alcohol in the prior year; by 2014/15, that had dropped to 57.1%. New Zealand’s overall progress towards UNICEF’S Goal 3 around healthy lives may then be understated – though New Zealand’s very high youth suicide rates rightly are highlighted as well.

UNICEF’s figures also understate the dramatic reduction in teenage birth rates in New Zealand. Statistics New Zealand reports that, in 2016, there were approximately 16 births for every woman aged 15-19 in New Zealand; UNICEF’s figures put it at 23. New Zealand’s teenage birth rate has roughly halved since 2008.

The report worryingly points to that 16% of New Zealand children live in households in which no adult reports being in work. This is especially poor performance where employment rates in New Zealand are much higher than in most OECD countries, and are at or near all-time highs in the available New Zealand data.

New Zealand fares relatively poorly on an aggregate measure of inequality that UNICEF constructs from two measures of income inequality, and one measure of the role of socioeconomic differences in school performance. All of New Zealand’s poor showing is due to poor outcomes for children in lower decile schools; New Zealand is at or around mean of reported countries on the other two measures. Lifting performance in poorly performing schools should be a priority.

If the government’s investment approach to improving social outcomes is successful, New Zealand’s standing in UNICEF’s ranking should show improvement within the next few years.

I had initially prepared these comments for Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw. His story on it’s here; I hadn’t known he was on a 5pm deadline and got this through a bit too late to make it in.