Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says New Zealand faces a grim future if slow progress on child poverty continues.
His comments come after the release of the latest Child Poverty Monitor report today, which covers up until June 2019 — before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
It found one in five children are living in poverty.
Even before Covid-19, the report warned many families lived in precarious circumstances and wouldn't be able to absorb sudden loss of income.
"There's a grim future if we continue with very slow progress," Becroft told TVNZ1's Breakfast today.
"These statistics are 18 to 30 months old. We can't tell what the real situation is."
There are currently 150,000 children in demonstrable hardship, meaning they lack access to necessities.
"If we continue like this we're deciding to tolerate child poverty as normative. That can't be the case in a country like New Zealand," Becroft says.
"We need to accept we are in a child poverty emergency. It's a profound and deeply distressing situation."
Becroft points to the number of children suffering from rheumatic fever in New Zealand, calling it a "matter of disgrace".
"It's entirely preventable yet we see it far too regularly in New Zealand," he says.
"Child poverty isn't just the stats we're talking about today. The tentacles reach into every area of a child's life."
For Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) spokesperson Innes Asher, there's a sense of frustration.
She was part of a working group recommending changes to the Government; of its 42 key recommendations, none have been fully implemented yet.
"This has been going on for nearly 30 years," Asher says.
"Children cannot wait. This is harming their entire futures... It's an appalling situation [and it's] invisible to most New Zealanders."
The Government's Families Package was rolled out in 2018 and is intended to help lift children out of poverty, but Asher says it doesn't go far enough.
"We've got to be bold and substantial," she says, suggesting benefit raises of not just $25 per week but between $100 to $250 per week depending on the size of a family.
While she acknowledges the numbers seem large, she says it's something New Zealand has to do.
"That's how much short families are every single week," Asher says.
"It's really desperate deep poverty now, far deeper than it was in 1990. Benefits have gone down when everything [else] has gone up."
Becroft says increases to the accommodation allowance have been siphoned away.
"When the accommodation allowance goes up, rent goes up," he says.
"Some landlords are profiting off the poor and using them to make money."
As well as benefit increases, Becroft suggests urgently increasing state and community housing, controlling rising rents with rent freezes and providing free school lunches to all students.
"Covid showed us what we can do if we get together as a country, unite and commit ourselves to a target," he says.