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The recovery phase of Christmas - is there really such a thing?

There’s a meme circulating Facebook that expresses the anguish of Christmas being finally over … only to have kids’ birthdays to contend with in January. As far as I can tell, it’s widespread and resonates deeply for parents feeling the pinch of having to keep their pockets open and continuously flowing during what’s already an expensive time of year. That’s after having met all the expectations of extended family - who brings what to the Christmas table, who’s buying what for whom. Doubtlessly, Christmas is a bittersweet time of year for many families who simply don’t have the kind of cash flow to meet the endless costs. Forthcoming New Year’s celebrations are tinged with the pangs of additional outgoings on credit cards and other debt repayments. And then there’s back-to-school preparation.

The meme doesn’t simply imply a lack of want or a general Scrooge McDuck attitude to spending. Everyone wants the very best for their children, and wants them to enjoy the holiday like the ‘other kids’ do, and they also feel a strong pull to ‘fit in’ with other family members. They are also loaded with guilt for having January kids’ birthdays overshadowed by the hype of Christmas, when compared to the children whose birthdays are mid-year. Neither should the meme be translated as about the financial burden of parenthood, or invite speculation as to employment status. Let’s be clear. Christmas is expensive and stressful for everyone. But it’s so much more stressful if you’re struggling to pay rent, and not sure if there’s going to be money enough for grocery shopping next week.

While meeting day-to-day costs on a modest income is hard enough, the pressure of other continually increasing costs of living makes Christmas, holidays and birthdays thereafter a matter of sheer anxiety for low-income parents. Take housing, for example, arguably one of the biggest costs families face. A small two-bedroom unit in West Auckland costs in the range of $400 to $500 per week, and that’s at the lower end of the scale. Even without children, people on lower-than-average incomes are being financially debilitated by their housing costs. Our plentiful Aotearoa is fast taking a backward slide into the class-based society of yesteryear where churches and charities took care of the needy. But as costs rise faster than incomes - especially for those in the lowest income brackets, more people are sliding into that “needy” category. In the week before Christmas, the Auckland City Mission gave out more than 12000 food parcels and presents to those who simply could not afford to survive over the period, let alone buy gifts for children. Most of the people lining up before doors opened for service were mothers with children. Many of whom had some form of employment. Many lacked a permanent home. Community Facebook pages were also awash with cries for help.

Doing Christmas ‘on the cheap’ is not as easy as many suggest it is, and often with the best of intentions those who try still end up spending more than they can afford, potentially having to fall back onto credit to do so. Even preparing homemade gifts for the hordes comes with a significant outlay. And, birthdays in January aside, there are further costs associated with having extended family and other children stay over the holiday, expensive school holiday programmes, holiday entertainment, additional food, the list goes on. There may be unpaid time off work if holiday pay has been exhausted and work has shut down, and parents may be on casual contracts that don’t pay over the break.

Come January, recovery from the cost of Christmas is nowhere in sight, and there are the back-to-school costs to contend with. As is usual, there are school fees expected to be paid (sometimes at a discounted rate for early birds, putting pressure on to reduce the overall cost but to pay faster). Though the ‘fees’ are technically a ‘donation’, there are often certain privileges that children may not have access to unless fees are paid, such as school camps and extra-curricular activities. Stationery gets more costly every year, and as children get older, there are increased expectations from schools for parents to provide more expensive items such as digital devices – extra costs that are becoming the norm. Uniforms, new bags, drink bottles, lunch boxes to replace last years worn out ones. Another long and costly list.

Families could really use a bit of help here.

In the colder season, there’s now a Winter Energy Payment (WEP), the purpose of which is to provide some people extra help with the additional costs of keeping the home warm over winter. And it is indeed a worthwhile initiative from the Labour-led coalition Government. People on benefits (including many on pensions) often struggle during this time, and for those eligible recipients, the extra $30 or so is welcomed. But it doesn’t go far, and it’s sorely missed when it ends all too quickly. For parents however, the bell-curve of cost increases is not as black and white as the power bill in wintertime. Costs escalate at all other times of the year, costs that are often are met by credit cards and loans from high-interest fringe lenders that create another layer of weekly outgoings, often lasting into subsequent years, compounding with each round of borrowing. Furthermore, struggling working families who miss out on additional supports, such as the narrowly-targeted WEP, see no respite, even in winter.

There is logic in the WEP and yet none. Especially when some wealthier pensioners get it automatically, and while we are still waiting for a systemic response to the burden of poverty that is afflicting more and more families with children, whose costs continue to rise throughout the year.

This time last year, the Government flipped a switch and gave eligible tertiary students an extra $50 a week. It’s time they flipped a switch for children, on the so-called “In-Work” tax credit, and gave low-income beneficiary families and those who are in paid work but don’t meet the minimum hours criteria an additional $72.50 per week, to give them the real boost they need, for their children, to get through these evermore costly times.

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