We hear about poverty on the television news. We see it in the newspapers and talk about it at the pub and with people worried about the issues of the day. Talk back radio often covers one aspect or more of poverty. The disillusioned public wonder where the egalitarian country based on common sense and community that they knew has gone and want to talk substantive and tough new measures. But when opportunities arise to address it, as evidenced by the scores of reports that have been into the issue, the powers that be are either incapable of acting or focus on the wrong priorities.
Such is the social rot that poverty is in our society.
For nine years Labour had opportunities to address the issue. Whilst some good work got done, by and large, their efforts could be best described as nibbling around the periphery of a much bigger and more complex issue. Piecemeal ministerial law changes were introduced such as the Working for Families package which enabled the percentage of children considered to be in poverty to fall from 28% to 22. Measures were focussed across a broad range of Ministerial portfolio’s, such as education, health, social welfare and housing. During this time though child abuse was highlighted by some tragic cases where despite the effort the most vulnerable slipped through the cracks.
It is true that not all cases could have been managed by the Government and some personal responsibility was required. In 2006 a Samoan woman died after her dialysis machine stopped working because she had not paid consecutive power bills and her power company had sent someone to disconnect the property. In this case questions need to be asked about why the client did not make an effort to contact welfare agencies and ask for assistance, and why the power company was not informed that she relied on power for her dialysis machine.
So how has the succeeding National led Government done?
National came to office when the Global Financial Crisis was still in progress. To be fair it has had a tough job balancing the Treasury books and restricting the debt accrual. In addition to the Global Financial Crisis which wiped billions from New Zealand banks, causing 32 individual institutions to fail or need assistance, it has had to deal with the effects of the Christchurch and Canterbury earthquakes. By contrast Labour came into office with the economy going okay, and had nine years of uninterrupted surpluses eventually topping out at N.Z$10 billion, during which time there were no natural disasters causing widespread damage or deaths to hit New Zealand.
National came to office saying it was going to reduce poverty. Its leader Prime Minister John Key grew up in a state house in a working class part of Christchurch, and as part of his campaign to show that National cared about poverty, he visited As part of a deal with the Maori Party in return for their support, National introduced Whanau Ora, an indigenous health initiative for Maori. It has focused on welfare benefit reform and getting New Zealanders to move to areas where jobs are available.
It is true that during this time, there were cases of individual responsibility lacking. Rather than pointing out any individual cases, it should be noted the Christchurch rebuild has highlighted major shortages in skilled tradespeople on one hand, but also the fact that drug use is making it difficult for employers to hire for jobs involving heavy machinery because of this.
Unfortunately National, like Labour before it has failed to address poverty. Child abuse remains a massive blight highlighted by the United Nations. New Zealanders are having trouble paying for rent, putting food on the table and sending the children to school because of the costs. Incomes have not risen significantly and housing is frankly a pipe dream for many.
Whether the next Government will address this issue remains to be seen.