Dear New Zealand Government, this Christmas families want a light at the end of the tunnel

Christmas is a wonderful but exhausting time of the year for parents. We are on the one hand looking forward to it, to the joy of seeing our children unwrap their gifts, spending time with family and celebrating with special food. But on the other, we are over it entirely, and Boxing Day cannot come soon enough. It’s a nightmare of expectations, environmentally hazardous and costly consumerism. Many of us are anxious about the tally of expenditure and what that will mean for the year to come, already thinking about the costs of the new school year, the credit card and amenities bills, the childcare that has to be paid for over the holiday period. But we love our children being excited and joyous and having something to look forward to. It’s worth it, we say.

We all deserve a rest and some fun after a hard year of school and parenting and work: adults and children alike. But for too many parents in Aotearoa, it will be a stretch to find room in the budget for a movie treat or gas for some beach trips so they can enjoy the Kiwi holiday season with their families. Christmas is expensive, and though parents simply can’t afford it, no-one wants their children to be without a gift, or for them to miss out on the Christmas trimmings. Not having the money to make sure your kids don’t miss out on Christmas is stress on top of stress, after a year fraught with financial struggle and housing instability. For many, the light at the end of the tunnel - the promise that all will be OK, and the bills will get paid - is a distant hope. 

Right now, hundreds of families have been queuing for hours, if not since the night before at four locations across Auckland, to receive a gift of generosity from the Auckland City Mission in the form of food, toiletries, pantry staples, and presents for the children. It’s a tragedy that this is necessary, but as John Campbell said, reporting from the side of a sleeping child at one of the Mission’s Christmas centres, there’s no denying this is the face of today’s New Zealand. It’s simply not ok for us to have this level of need in our relatively plentiful country. Things must change. Many of us thought this year would be the year for that change, but we are still waiting to see what’s in store for children who, as a result of wider societal and political problems, are still living with deep and enduring poverty. 

A new Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy published in August promised to prioritise an outcome where children and young people have all they need, including a good standard of material wellbeing, regular access to nutritious food, stable housing that is affordable, warm and dry, and their parents / caregivers have the skills and support they need to access quality employment. But where is the support for families that cannot access this quality employment? 

The Government-appointed Welfare Expert Advisory Group, back in May of this year, documented 42 over-arching and 120 comprehensive recommendations for improving New Zealand’s welfare system so that every person would have adequate support of a safety net that allowed them to thrive, when, for whatever reason, they had need of it. This was the vision of Michael Joseph Savage when the Social Security Act of 1938 was first passed into law, but years of political neglect has left our welfare system ‘broken’ . So far, at the end of 2019, government has only agreed to very few of the WEAG recommendations. And  these aren’t the life-changing income measures that our worst-off families need. 

In the short-term there will be some relief from school costs going into 2020, with many schools taking up the donation subsidy. Schools for whom this subsidy will make a big difference are already putting in place plans to lift the burden of other school costs off families. But other costs will remain and for families in private rentals, the new year often means rental increases. 

The Families Package was a positive step forward, reaching into many households. But for children in households where the main income is a benefit, it wasn't nearly enough. CPAG called on the Government to act swiftly and not wait for the next Budget, as Budget changes normally take a year to be implemented or are phased in over time. We asked the Government to provide an emergency package before Christmas. We suggested a range of things, including that the Winter Energy Payment could be extended until such time as benefits would be increased permanently. We asked for the Working for Families In-Work Tax Credit to be added to the first child, Family Tax Credit, so that the worst-off families could benefit from this child poverty-reducing measure. This payment of at least $72.50 per week could make so much difference in the lives of some 170,000 or more children in households who don’t currently get it - for many, it could make all the difference between a stressful Christmas and a happy one. 

We have a Government that has pledged to address child poverty in Aotearoa. In 2020, it can be done so that next Christmas, families will be able to see that light at the end of the tunnel, and enjoy what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.

Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels