Children are taonga, handle their dreams with aroha

My teammates and I recently spent time in a classroom of children at a decile 2 school, talking about hopes and dreams, and what’s needed to achieve them. The resounding response from these 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old students was aroha, healthy food, and good support. They wanted to have their voices heard, and their needs acknowledged, and the bricks to be in place so that they had good foundations for the future. I was heartened by their wisdom and pragmatism, but I was shocked by their responses when I suggested they could grow up to be leaders of this country. Many students felt fearful of politics; thought that politicians were people they could not trust.

Politicians are elected not just for their capability at running a country, but for their values. Children need to see the evidence that their wellbeing is at the centre of those values, and they need to see that their parents have trust and faith in those values. They need to know that politicians have their best interests at heart, and that those people will do everything in their power to ensure that Aotearoa is a good place for them and for their families. They need to believe, inherently, that their hopes and dreams can be realised.

What we don’t want, is for these brilliant, inspiring young people to become disillusioned, or for them to endure conditions that render their dreams unreachable.

In 2017 the Child Poverty Action Group, alongside more than 40 other organisations in the Child Wellbeing Community, supported Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft’s call for a united front on child poverty reduction. That is, a national accord, an agreement that reducing child poverty should be of utmost political importance and priority in Aotearoa. We saw this tragic issue take precedence in political debate pre-election, with party leaders vying for the best targets.

And when the Child Poverty Reduction Bill, introduced by Hon. Jacinda Ardern in her first 100 days as Prime Minister was supported in the House to the end of becoming a brand new Act in legislation, we finally had the appearance on paper that such an accord has been struck. Everyone agrees, including all the experts and even the politicians themselves, that more must be done to reduce the shocking levels of deprivation experienced by families and whānau across our plentiful nation.

But lately we have seen statistics bounce around and we’ve seen the quibbling over the increased hardship grants and the finger of blame being pointed as to who’s responsible for increased numbers on the jobseeker benefit, while there’s apparently record low unemployment.

There could be many reasons for the numbers going up. For example, people who have fallen through the gaps - like rough sleepers and people kicked off benefits because of sanctions - may actually be getting the help they need. Thank heavens for that. This Government has stated a commitment to making sure people are getting their full entitlements, which they are following through on, and that may mean in some instances receiving a benefit for the first time. 

Increased hardship expenditure is not something to blame on politics, but it is evidence of inadequate incomes. It is recognition of the deep need and the realisation that people must be helped, if they are to be prevented from falling through those gaps again. 

This need has not sprung up overnight. Many families in deeply entrenched poverty are there because of years of intergenerational hardship and stress, trauma, health issues – these are all wounds that have not been healed. The poverty we see today while our nation is brandishing a trophy surplus, is evidence of the widening gap between the haves and have nots, and the increased hardship expenditure reflects this chasm of need. The overwhelmed food parcel charities like our city missions and the Salvation Army reflect this need.

There is stark evidence that welfare benefits are far too low. They must be urgently and substantially increased, not just signalled in the next budget for 2021 if the Labour Party is re-elected. It’s time for Finance Minister Grant Robertson to put spending power and opportunity into the hands of our disadvantaged. If he wants to see the nation’s bank balance continue to appear healthy, and to see small businesses thriving, then he’s got to prioritise giving families the ability to buy. But he should be doing it for the sake of the children.

Child poverty has likely improved on some measures because many families benefited from the Families Package introduced last year. But much of that was a catch-up for years of eroded spending on Working for Families. Struggling working families sitting at around the new earned income threshold of $42,700 stood to reap the bulk of the gain, and it was a great step forward for them.

However the worst-off families have not been helped much. There are 174,000 children living in households that have less than 40% of the national household median income* (after housing costs). These are mostly children supported by a welfare benefit, children who regularly go without healthy food. Their families are suffering, and their parents have no way to escape until they are sufficiently resourced to make changes in their lives they so desperately want, including having improved health and increased opportunity. Child poverty is nowhere near to being fixed.

When you are living on a shoestring, having to queue up at food banks, when your house is overcrowded, or you are in emergency housing and on the 12,000 strong waiting list for State housing, when your kids are cold and hungry and you’ve no idea if you’re going to get the help you need, your bandwidth for ‘improving your life’ or ‘just getting a job’ or even getting to an appointment on time is severely limited. Families are facing unbearable stress that’s compounded daily by expectations on them simply to ‘do better’ or ‘do without’.

While sole parent support recipients who do not name the other parent on their welfare application will finally see the end of their financial punishment, this policy does not come in until  next year. The Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s other recommendations have not been acted upon except for two minor changes that mean little more than a few dollars a week increase for a few people, again not until next year. There’s no talk of benefit increases at all.

Going back to those school children, who bravely spoke of their hopes and dreams, and about what they believed they needed to succeed, who broke down when they thought of what many children were missing out on, and of their own experiences: we need to do better so that those smart, intuitive and empathetic people can aspire to lead and to live exciting, full lives.

Forget the $7.5billion surplus. The measure of a successful economy is one where all children have their needs met, and have confidence that those in power can be trusted with their wellbeing, that their hopes and dreams can be realised. When we achieve wellbeing for all our tamariki, and when they can trust our leaders, Aotearoa will truly be the best place to be a child. Then we can say with confidence and pride that we have a successful economy.

*adjusted for family size.

Photography: Anita Pitu for ActionStation NZ