The Government’s response to lockdown hardship has been piecemeal and inadequate. Why?

Since August, the Government’s response to lockdown hardship has been more piecemeal and inadequate than it was last year. Why?

Heartwarmingly, this latest lockdown is showing how much our communities care for each other: teachers for their students, church leaders for their congregations, and rangatira for their hapū and for, well, everyone. Whānau, family, friends and charities are doing what they can to give hope to children and young people during lockdown, and to ensure they are warm, with access to online education and appropriate nourishing food.

But they can only do so much.  Government – the only actor with the power to ensure all families are flourishing, free from the toxic stress of poverty – has not done enough to prevent, or even reduce, lockdown-expense despair and educational exclusion for low-income children this time around. Families face high unexpected bills for power, internet access and groceries - particularly as food-in-schools programmes are halted. But in the face of abundant evidence that the stop-gap measures initiated in the first 2020 lockdown for low-income families were nowhere near enough, this year, unbelievably, the Government has done even less.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Government is conscious of its neglect of children and young people.

Let’s look at what-might-have-been. Since early 2020, the Government’s economic response to the pandemic could – and should – have aimed to elevate children’s wellbeing. Given food insecurity was already affecting one in five children in Aotearoa pre-Covid, last year Government could have reformed welfare and Working for Families (WFF) as long-promised, in response to Covid. Given how vital internet access is for education (even outside of lockdown), last year would have been a good time for the Government to resource, champion and achieve universal digital inclusion. Home building by the state should have been ramped up exponentially. With those basics in place, we would have started to ensure all children in Aotearoa could thrive, develop, play, learn and grow free from poverty, as is their right, and their families would have had the financial resilience to better weather this current lockdown.

But of course, none of those things happened. Instead, last year children already in deprivation bore the brunt of the early pandemic while property investors saw their wealth balloon. Last November, the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction Jacinda Ardern was warned by her officials that “the most severe negative effects” of the pandemic were likely to be felt by families who were “already disadvantaged”. A recent Child Poverty Action Group research review, on the first year of Covid-19, confirmed this: family stress, caregiver loneliness, homelessness and foodbank use spiked with the initial lockdown, and then – worryingly – stayed high. Inequality increased in rates of chronic school absence and infant immunisations. CPAG modelling suggests child poverty increased by around 10% in the year to March 2021, on a key government measure.

Nutrition plays a role in two out of every five deaths in Aotearoa every year.

Lack of income is a major factor in all this distress and opportunity loss. Yet the Government’s response has been “we don’t need to do as much as we did last year”. Unlike last year, the Government has introduced no lockdown-related benefit increases since lockdown started in August, nor have they doubled the Winter Energy Payment. The small, partial benefit increases in July were insufficient even prior to the Delta lockdown. The upshot: until the end of September, in spite of a harder lockdown, many families received just the same weekly benefit incomes as they had at the same time last year. Yet rent, power and fruit & vegie prices keep breaking records - vegetable prices increased 19 percent in the year to September. As Prof Elaine Rush notes, food insecurity is a key sign of inequity: "Food bank usage has more than doubled but that is the tip of the problem – many are going without food or surviving on poor quality foods." She also tells CPAG: "poor nutrition is the pre-existing condition that makes some more susceptible to Covid-19" and on its own it's a killer also: in 2003, the Ministry of Health estimated that nutrition played a role in about 11,000 deaths a year in New Zealand (two in every five deaths). Modelling suggests that's about the same number as would die from Covid, if we had a 75% vaccination rate and a Delta outbreak. But these nutrition-related deaths happen every year.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Government is conscious of its neglect of children and young people. They’re smoke-screening their stubborn lack of action: hiding behind their support for foodbanks as if you can pay for digital schooling with bread; talking about next year’s benefit increases at Question Time as if they’re already distributed; obfuscating with “watch this space” and “we’re monitoring need” as if communities aren’t desperate. It’s gob-smacking.

Communities via foodbanks are being asked to pick up the pieces of Government failure. 

The upshot: Thousands of children are without access to basic education and quality food. Their caregivers are dealing with the distress of disempowerment due to lack, prevented from giving their children what they know is best for them. Deprivation is further entrenched by government neglect in response to lockdown, inviting despair and mistrust – at the very time as trust in the government is vital for public health initiatives to work. And very directly, Prof Michael Baker and other public health experts have called for increases in economic support for those in poverty and hardship, to ensure everyone has the means, as well as the will, to comply with restrictions. As Dr Renee Liang points out, paediatricians see the effects of inequity and child poverty daily, and know “the populations most affected by Covid and most likely to die from it are those living under socioeconomic strain and indigenous populations”. 

Communities via foodbanks are being asked to pick up the pieces of Government failure. Shamefully, the size of unmet community need is hundreds of times greater than the additional $20-odd million given to charity foodbanks this lockdown. That amount of new support is less than one percent of the $3 billion handed out in wage subsidies and business support so far in this lockdown alone.

Adequate incomes would also help to rebuild trust in the Government, trust which is so vital to dealing with this crisis.

If the wage subsidy is a high trust model, then Government over-reliance on foodbanks is possibly the lowest-trust model there is. Food insecurity is caused by lack of income: parents and caregivers know what groceries their families need but are being denied the income to make those decisions. Sector research shows only 25% of food providers can regularly source fresh fruit and vegetables. Plus you can’t pay your rent and power with groceries.  

We agree with Treasury that the Government will not meet all their self-set child poverty reduction targets next year. We have all been let down by a government who talks the talk but barely walks the walk for children in poverty. We need to see welfare reform fast-tracked and universal digital inclusion put in place asap.

Meanwhile, whether or not they’re still in lockdown, families need more income now, as they deal with ongoing Covid-related debt and worry. The Government has multiple delivery options until genuine welfare reform kicks in: ensuring all low-income families are eligible for all Working for Families payments, and bringing forward next year’s benefit increases, would be a start. This month, the Winter Energy Payment ended, with families losing $30 each a week. Reintroducing this vital payment as an acknowledgement that lockdown is tough would help to rebuild hope and a sense that the Government cares, at the same time as it’s requesting all sorts of difficult actions. It would also help to rebuild the trust in the Government which is so vital as we all continue to deal with the social, economic and health fallout of this crisis.