Poverty As A Social Policy Domain: The Intersections Between Income Inequality, Housing And Health In New Zealand

Poverty has been a significant issue in New Zealand for decades. Both Jacinda Ardern and John Key pledged to make child poverty a key focus when they campaigned to be in government. Multiple charities such as KidsCan were created to cater for lower income families and their special needs. It is estimated over 250,000 Kiwi children live below the poverty line.

The “inability to obtain decent, affordable housing is one of the major barriers to an adequate standard of living” in New Zealand, according to the Human Rights Commission. Lower-income households should have equitable access to healthcare resources, as there are direct links particularly between the health of children and elderly populations and their quality of housing. As those in lower-income households experience significant financial strain, many are forced to live in poor housing that does not comply to industry standards. Homes with leaks and mould issues create repetitive health issues which increase demand on the healthcare system, and therefore increase the need for healthcare funding. A researcher at the University of Otago stated to the New Zealand Herald that Kiwis make an estimated 28,000 visits to hospitals annually due to poor housing. By improving housing standards, we decrease the cycle of poverty by allowing families to be healthier and spend less on healthcare visits and medications. Creating regulations in this sector will be significant for instigating this outcome.

Adequate housing is a fundamental human right outlined by the United Nations and in New Zealand’s 1990 Bill of Rights Act and 1986 Residential Tenancies Act. The national commitment to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in providing secure and adequate housing as laid out in Goal 11, illustrates poverty, poor housing and healthcare as a global issue. By using safe housing initiatives to decrease poverty, governments have utilized a variety of policy instruments to bring such change to their nations. It is equally important that both incentives and enforcement instruments are used in these endeavors.

Legislation is by far the most effective policy instrument to lessen poverty through housing because it creates minimum standards and provides equity for renters nationwide. For example, the 2017 Healthy Homes Guarantee Act aims to diminish the cycle of poverty. The key areas the government has indicated as imperative for safe housing include proper heating, insulation, ventilation, drainage systems and draught stoppers. However, these standards lack focus on windows, which is a large oversight. Double glazing on the windows of all new houses became a requirement in 2008, but there is no legislation for houses constructed prior to then. A lack of proper window sealing and glazing is one of the largest causes of heat loss within the home, so further requiring double glazed windows could have a significant impact in heating homes and giving residents more comfort.

The Healthy Home Standards require homes to have heaters with a minimum of 18-degree capability for heating, proper insulation requirements and draught stopping methods to provide adequate warmth without creating as much financial strain. This will also prevent children from falling ill. The ventilation, moisture and drainage standards decrease the risk of mould growth, therefore decreasing the likelihood of repetitive health issues. A similar reform for minimum housing standards was implemented in Queensland, Australia in 2017 after consultation with the public. Of those surveyed, ventilation and insulation were rated as being important to 88% of tenants, while preventing dampness and its effects were rated at 95%, and repair, sanitation and drainage were rated at 97%. The study of Queensland renters indicates that renters in New Zealand share similar concerns about housing equity and safety. Regulations create equitable housing standards and allow for financial penalties for the landlords or compensation for tenants if certain standards are not met. Thus, such legislation for better standards will in turn foster preventable medical issues as a result of poor housing.

Another significant policy instrument to decrease poverty is by providing utility subsidies to lower-income families. Electricity affordability and accessibility throughout the winter when illness becomes more prevalent is critical for lower-income populations. In 2017, Prime Minister Ardern promised to introduce a Winter Energy Payment program for those on welfare, which was doubled last year as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The subsidy depends upon each person’s circumstances, where couples and households with children receive more per month during the wintertime than single people. A recent Stuff article detailed that electricity bills are still a heavy concern for lower income households; while power prices have been their cheapest in over a decade, “consumers were still struggling to pay their bills.” As the elderly are at a higher risk of illness from inadequate heating, receiving this money alongside their pension payments further secures their comfort. New Zealand First’s deputy leader, Fletcher Tabuteau, remarked to Newshub that the program “takes the fear of the electricity bill away from our most vulnerable.” The Winter Energy Payments alleviate pressure from lower income households by enabling them to afford heating, lessening the impact of health concerns related to cold housing and improving their quality of life.

Proper enforcement of this newer legislation is critical to its effectiveness.  The 2020 Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill aims to provide further protections for tenants and penalties for non-compliance by landlords. By enforcing penalties, landlords have incentive to abide by these standards as written in law and keep their properties upgraded. News reports frequently display that low-income households, students and the elderly are most vulnerable to exploitation in the rental market. Typically, these groups either are unaware of their rights as a tenant, or because of housing shortages, finances, time or fear of eviction, believe they lack the power to take their landlords to the tenancy tribunal.

The causes and consequences of institutionalized poverty in New Zealand are far-reaching and cyclical. Lower-income households are more likely to deal with poor-quality housing, and consequently they often have higher medical bills and spend more time out of work. This creates a cycle that only further entrenches these households and widens the gap between those living under the poverty line and those above it. The deployment of effective initiatives and policy instruments must continue to reduce national poverty and provide renters safer and healthier homes. 

Sophie Simons
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