Back-to-school costs: A looming spiral of debt

It's my daughter’s first day at intermediate and my stomach is in knots. I know she’ll be ok. She knows how to slap on a fake-it-till-you-make-it grin and step out into the world. But this tactic isn’t going to work for me.

I've sourced second-hand uniform items, I’ve been donated stationery items and I’m still wracked with anxiety at somehow having to pay several hundred dollars for her uniform, shoes, fees and activities. And let’s not even talk about Bring Your Own Device! At this point I’m reminded of that fortunately-unfortunately campfire game. Fortunately, her dad will pay half of these costs. Unfortunately, her brother is going on school camp this year, which will add another $170 to his school costs. Fortunately, he doesn’t want to play sport this term. Unfortunately, his school bag just broke. This is the way of it, of course, single parents on low incomes are always treading water. The problem is that when we start the year facing several hundred dollars of costs, well, it’s almost impossible to keep your head up.

So I was relieved when I saw the words “we may be able to help with back to school costs” on the Work and Income website the other day. I clicked on it and my smile turned wry. This “help” is a loan. I meet the income test for this loan, but there is a sole parent asset limit of $1,794.51. Aside from being an enigmatically arbitrary number (that fifty one cents!), that amount is a paltry savings buffer for a sole parent. All you need is your car to break down or emergency dental treatment, and that’s it. You’re down to absolutely nothing. And when you’re destitute, debt is the last thing you can can afford. So, thanks but no thanks.

I’m one of the lucky ones. My mum is helping me out this year. It takes a village to pay for a child. But wait, isn’t that what we’re already doing in New Zealand? Isn’t our compulsory education supposed to be free? It strikes me that what I’m dealing with here is a struggle to find an individual solution to a collective problem. National MP Nicola Willis recently suggested lengthening the school term as a solution to parents’ struggle to fund/find childcare over the summer holidays. Putting aside the question of how effective her solution might be, I want to acknowledge that at least she’s recognised the possibility of a broad solution. I just think her question needs a bit of reframing. Because the “problem” of the cost of childcare or schooling can be taken out of this deficit model. The cost of going back to school isn’t just my “problem”, the way affordable childcare isn’t just my “problem”. This isn’t about keeping parents working or staving off the spectre of debt. This is about how we collectively find ways to give our kids what they need to thrive. Education is a social cost because we are all investing in our shared prosperity.

I asked my kids what they thought the cost of going to school should be. “Well, the thing is,” said my nine-year-old with his characteristic sagacity, “that money for books and shoes and tablets ... It doesn’t go to the school.” Which is a good point. And begs the question of why we are willing to fund our MPs’ travel allowances, but not our kids’ stationery. Not to mention that if school costs were funded by taxpayers, I’d be very surprised if my daughter’s school could get away with charging $75 for a hideous pair of tartan skorts without the national media furore that it deserves.

The question is, how can we save low-income families from the looming spiral of debt caused by school costs? One answer to this question could be something like the Back to School Bonus Australia phased out in 2016. Yet any targeted grant, like Work and Income’s loan scheme, is individualised poverty stop-gapping. The thing is, every child in Aotearoa should be able to start their school year with the books, clothes and equipment they need. We can answer the same question by asking another one. We can ask how we can give our kids what they need to flourish at school. How can we make sure they all have what they need to be able to learn well, for their own future and our collective future growth? How can we can support the wellbeing of all New Zealand children so their futures are open to possibilities?