How rotten is New Zealand, given the state of poverty at the end of 2019? And why do politicians and the public allow it? These are the questions that might be asked in the lead up to Christmas this year, given the wealth of information we have on disadvantage and suffering at the moment.
Auckland City Mission is currently carrying out their annual distribution of Christmas care packages across the city, but the reports resulting from this are pretty bleak. This week the head of community services development for the Mission, Brook Turner, pointed to the rising poverty and desperate situations facing beneficiary and working families as we come into the holiday season. He says “At Christmas that’s a pretty rotten thing to be happening to Kiwis” – see Carmen Parahi’s Auckland City Mission Christmas service sees families queue all night for parcels.
According to this report, the City Mission now distributes its relief from four centres instead of the traditional CBD one, and demand is badly exceeding supply: “Each centre is part of the Auckland City Mission’s Christmas service to distribute 200 family care packages per day for eight days. On the first day each centre reported turning away 50-100 families. They were expecting people would miss out every day. At Ngā Whare Waatea Marae, Māori Wardens were on site for most of the night keeping people safe as they queued. By 10pm, 60 families were camped and at 6.30am several hundred were waiting. Many missed out by the time the gate opened.”
Some families are travelling from long distances outside of Auckland to queue overnight. The Mission’s Turner reflects on this: “We were quite astonished by that. It speaks to how far those who are in need are willing to go to get the help they need.” He said it was a sign of rising inequality, food insecurity, living costs and issues around financial hardship, not just for those on benefits but also people who were working.”
TVNZ’s John Campbell visited some of those queuing at the City Mission’s Eden Park distribution centre this week, saying the existence of the centres is “a stark reminder of poverty in New Zealand”, and reported that of those camping out, “30 to 40 of the 200 people at Eden Park were children” – see: John Campbell kneels next to sleeping child at food bank, livid at state of poverty in NZ.
Reflecting on the situation, Campbell said, “People are sleeping on concrete outside and they are sleeping to get food and presents for Christmas. Imagine having to do that”. Furthermore: “This is our country and there’s no point pretending this isn’t our country because it is, and those of us who are journalist’s see it quite often. Those of us who work in this sector see it all the time.”
Campbell reports on one mother queuing at the centre: “She caught the bus before 6am, carrying two suitcases to bring back kai for her whānau, because otherwise they wouldn’t have enough.” Apparently, “The mother-of-one said she goes without power most weekends, telling her family it’s ‘like camping’.”
The poor state we’re in
The Auckland City Mission has been trying to estimate the severity of New Zealand’s food shortage problem. General Manager for Social Services Helen Robinson, who has just completed a MA on food insecurity, says “about 500,000 Kiwis are too poor to afford appropriate food” – see 1News’ ‘This is a public health crisis’ – City Mission calls for food insecurity measure to understand issue of poverty.
The government no longer measures food poverty, and that’s something Robinson is trying to change: “With the best information the mission has, we believe about 10 per cent of New Zealand is food insecure. So [there are] about 500,000 people in our country, like the hundreds that you have seen today, who don’t have enough appropriate food. What we’re calling for is to measure that.”
Robinson has also written about her disbelief that the situation is so bad: “I couldn’t understand why, that in New Zealand – this beautiful land of plenty, people simply didn’t have enough food and were forced to seek support to feed themselves and their families” – see: Christmas is about food and family – but not for all.
And it’s only getting worse: “Over the last few years, the need has increased. Our most recent information shows a 40 percent year-to-year increase in demand for emergency food parcels.” And, it’s not just a problem of those without work: “Some are working more than one job but still can’t meet all their living costs.” Such people, according to a survey of 650 people using the Mission’s food bank, are having to frequently “choose between buying food and meeting other essential costs.”
For more on the Auckland City Mission’s “8 Days of Christmas” operations, and why it’s expanded to new distribution centres around the city, you can listen to an interesting RNZ documentary – see Liu Chen’s Food parcels’ distribution on four sites to avoid ‘humiliating’ queues. Chris Farrelly, the Auckland City Missioner, explains why they shifted to four new centres outside of the CBD: “These long queues in Hobson Street stretching all night – we stopped that. There was no dignity. It was quite a humiliating”.
Other agencies are also reporting a worsening situation for those at the bottom. Trevor McGlinchey from the Council of Christian Social Services reports that charities are “telling him that demand for food is growing” – see Sarah Robson’s 10% of Kiwis experiencing food insecurity. Apparently, “An organisation that may have been distributing 100 food parcels a month five years ago today will be distributing 200 to 300 food parcels a month.”
Similarly, see Cate Broughton’s Overwhelmed charities say child poverty in NZ as high as ever. This article reports on the charity KidsCan, which helps children in low-decile schools, saying it’s facing “continued high demand for its support”, and over “the past five years the number of schools supported has almost doubled, from 388 to 740.”
New reports on poverty
Last week the Children’s Commission released its annual stocktake of the state of child poverty – the Child Poverty Monitor – produced in conjunction with the University of Otago, and it was generally bad news – see Thomas Manch’s Child Poverty Monitor shows 148,000 children are living in material hardship.
According to this report, “More than one in 10 children in New Zealand are living in material hardship, and tens of thousands are going without healthy food.” And Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft is quoted saying that families are not able to keep up with the “ever-increasing costs of daily living, like rent and putting food on the table”.
Elsewhere, Becroft warned “We are in danger, as a country, of marginalising a group of kids and reinforcing generational disadvantage”. See Dan Satherley’s report, More Kiwi kids living in low-income households, suffering hardship, for more details of the report.
Another report, came out recently about working households living in poverty, which was carried out by AUT’s New Zealand Work Research Institute on behalf of the Human Rights Commission, and claims to be the most detailed research ever carried out on the working poor in New Zealand – see Vita Molyneux’s The staggering number of Kiwi workers living in poverty.
According to this, 50,000 households – or seven per cent – are living in poverty “despite containing at least one person who is in paid work.” The report warns of a renting “underclass” being formed due to the extreme cost of housing.
The Ministry of Social Development has recently released its annual statistical report on household incomes – you can read this here: Household incomes in New Zealand: Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2018.
This report “makes for depressing if not surprising reading” according inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke, who provides a very useful overview in his blog post, Inequality and poverty: A summary of the 2019 household incomes in NZ report.
He says that, “Economic inequality remains at the very high level the country was left with in the late 1990s following 15 years of market-based reforms.” According to his calculations, based on the report, New Zealand’s level of inequality are now “noticeably higher than the OECD average”.
And Rashbrooke suggests that things have even worsened compared to Britain: “Looking at the share of income going to the various fifths (quintiles) of the population, New Zealand is now slightly more unequal than the supposedly class-ridden UK, with its poorest fifth taking less, and its richest fifth taking more, than their British counterparts”
Part of the problem is the global financial crisis that occurred a decade ago, leading to dramatic changes. However, in the decade since the crisis hit, the Herald’s business editor Liam Dann says the burden has been shared very unevenly, and not everyone has fared so badly: “if you started the decade with assets it’s been a golden age. If you started the decade poor you’ve probably gone backwards. While structural inequality has always been part and parcel of capitalism, it was supercharged by the fallout from the global financial crisis” – see: The bad joke that spoiled a golden decade (paywalled)..
Looking at changes in wealth over the decade, Dann says: “If you had all your wealth in the NZX-50 since the end of 2009, you’d have seen it increase by more than 300 per cent. If you had your wealth in housing you’d have doubled it – at least. If you were relying on wage growth to get ahead, well, I hope you got a promotion or two.” He therefore concludes that “the world still seems an uglier, less friendly place in 2019.”
Finally, although the ultimate solutions to the problems of poverty are political, individuals can still ameliorate the rotten symptoms of a severely unequal system, and Josephine Franks details how in her article, Giving at Christmas: How you can help Auckland’s homeless and others in need.