Simon Wilson: Why do we care so little about poverty?


Why do we care so little about poverty? The Salvation Army released its annual State of the Nation report on Wednesday, telling us, among other things, that in the last year 23,000 more children are now living in benefit-dependent households.

Big day for Covid news, to be sure, but even so, the report hardly caused a ripple.

Directly related, Government emergency food grants have risen three-fold since 2017 and last year totalled 1.5 million. The Sallies distributed 113,000 food parcels themselves in 2020: nearly twice as many as the year before. Auckland City Mission, marae and other agencies that run foodbanks report similar stories.

The Sallies also reveal that rents have been rising steadily for years and the fastest growth is in the lowest quartile. That is, since 2015, the poorest quarter of New Zealanders who rent have faced the largest rent rises.

National has pointed out that weekly rents have risen by $100 since Labour came into office, which is true, but the data shows clearly that the problem easily predates Labour. They’re both complicit.

Meanwhile, as revealed by the Trade Me Rental Index, the city with the highest average rent in the country is now Porirua. In the year to September, Porirua rents rose 25 per cent.

It’s hard to see how this is not a sign of predatory behaviour aimed at the most vulnerable. No wonder there are now an astonishing 22,000 households waiting for social housing. That number has risen every quarter since late 2015.

Crisis feels like an overused word these days, but we better get used to it. We should definitely be using it when we talk about poverty.

As for the reason that report didn’t make bigger news: it wasn’t big news. We know it already.

As the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) told us in November last year, of the 42 recommendations of the Government’s own 2019 Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG), the number fully implemented was … zero.

A month earlier, during the election campaign, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni had declared that “currently work is already underway to address around 22 [WEAG] recommendations”.

Nope, said CPAG. While 19 had been “partially” or “minimally” implemented, there was “no evidence” for any action on the remaining 23. That almost entirelyremains the case today.

One of WEAG’s recommendations was quite big. It proposed an overhaul of the entire welfare system so that, among other things, it regards children as “paramount”, provides incomes “sufficient for an adequate standard of living”, ensures people receive the “full and correct entitlements” and treats everyone with “dignity, respect and compassion”.

Hang on. Those things are supposed to be the principles underlying the whole concept of a welfare state. How astonishing they need stating. How astonishing they are lacking at all.

Yet, as CPAG noted, the Government “is not claiming implementation of this recommendation”. It’s part of the “medium and longer-term work programme”, apparently. CPAG said there was “no evidence” of progress.

The most well known of the 2019 recommendations from WEAG is that the main benefit levels be raised by 12-47 per cent, with adjustments to the abatement levels.

When Covid struck last year the Government did raise the levels. On April 1 it introduced a $25 rise in benefits and it doubled the Winter Energy Payment for all beneficiaries.

These measures were widely welcomed. But that $25 equates only to a 6.4-10 per cent increase. And in a survey of beneficiaries last winter nearly half said they were less able to meet basic household costs than before. Despite the higher Winter Energy Payment. Only 12 per cent said things had got easier.

Poverty bites deep. Covid made life tough for everyone but toughest for beneficiaries. The clincher comes from the household living costs price index of Statistics NZ. It shows the costs facing beneficiaries last year rose at 2.5 times the rate of costs for all households.

On April 1 this year, the abatement levels for benefits will be adjusted. CPAG says this means it will move one of its 42 recommendations from “minimally” to “partially” implemented. Boom.

How is any of this possible?

The director of the Salvation Army’s social policy and parliamentary unit, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hutson, writes in their report: “I have heard it said that we should not waste a crisis. The co-founder of The Salvation Army, Catherine Booth, once said: ‘There is no improving the future, without disturbing the present, and the difficulty is to get people to be willing to be disturbed.’ Well, the present has been well and truly disturbed.”

One thing I admire about agencies working in this field: their incredible optimism.

It’s not that the Government is sitting on its hands. More school students will get free and healthy lunches, more visits from mobile dental clinics, mental health support and other initiatives. Just yesterday the PM announced they will all have access to free period products. It’s good, but not good enough.

There are new training incentives allowances, education, work skills and wage-assistance programmes. Wage earners are also benefiting, with higher minimum wages, a wider rollout of the Living Wage, the forthcoming introduction of fair pay agreements and extended sick leave provisions.

These are all good, too. But note how more progress is being made among the employed than among those who, for all sorts of reasons, are unable to work.

Why is that? One reason is that workers benefit from the advocacy of unions: it’s the core reason to join a union and everyone with a job should do it. It’s only three decades since that was the norm.

Also, there’s a sort of housing boom. Kainga Ora, the social housing agency, will spend nearly $10 billion over the next four year to deliver 18,000 public and transitional homes. Statistics NZ has reported a 46-year high in building consents.

But the tough news is that since 2013 consents have not kept pace with population growth.

Decent housing, which impacts health, education, employment and community cohesion, is at the heart of everything we do about poverty. But despite all the activity, we’re not really making a difference.

How do we short-circuit that? With emergency planning based on good social and environmental principles. With the rapid rollout of prefabrication and other new technologies to speed up building. With tax and financial reform. And with politicians in central and local government who have the skills to get it done.

Hutson again: “More changes are urgently needed right across the housing continuum—from homelessness through to home ownership. Maybe it’s time to ditch this proverbial treadmill and make bold and courageous housing policy ideas and initiatives that will effectively address these significant issues.”

Too right. Maybe it’s time we had a minister with fire in her belly determined to make it happen. Megan Woods, it’s your time to shine.

Maybe it’s also time ministers found the courage to make our welfare state a genuine cause for national pride. Carmel Sepuloni and Kelvin Davis: that’s on you.

The solutions aren’t easy. Many of the problems are intergenerational. Many of the solutions get stuck in the churning cogs of government, where too often there’s a culture of risk avoidance, ideological opposition, low morale and interagency distrust.

But so what? Because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should turn our backs.

Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi, says the Salvation Army report. The old net is cast aside while the new net goes fishing.

Hey Jacinda? Let’s do this.

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