When I came back from the Phillipines, many years ago now, the wonderful clean green New Zealand I came back to gave every appearance of prosperity and wealth. There is a welfare state, government housing, social service support and free health and education. Surely this is where any family has the opportunity to flourish?
Over the last 15 years I have been shocked to see the shape poverty takes in New Zealand and, in some ways, intrigued by the different faces of Third and First World poverty. It’s certainly not just about money, though we can’t deny the lack of it is at the heart of poverty.
In the Phillipines we lived in a slum, which is the good and bad of community life. The good is that everyone knows what you have or don’t have. What I call “pro-social” behaviours abound as neighbours care for each other’s children, food and resources are shared, and group solutions are sought to issues of housing, water, power and other necessities.
Poverty in New Zealand is a lonely reality. The separation within community as we live in our separate boxes (watching boxes) breeds suspicion, fear and insecurity.
Third World poverty solutions would generally be illegal here. Casual, non-taxable work abounds, as do illegal power and water connections and housing that wouldn’t pass any kind of health standard. The obsession with risk avoidance and safety in New Zealand rules out many possibilities of cutting cost and raises prices on the basics of food, housing and transport.
It seems there are some challenging questions that get thrown up around all this. There is an idea that welfare has not been such a good thing for many people, breeding dependence and laziness.
In any society, whether there is a welfare system or not, there will be a persistent percentage of people who you might describe as dependent, lazy or manipulative. My view is that this is not created by, or fostered within, a welfare system. You will never erase this reality either here or in the Third World.
Do you impoverish the children of such parents on the basis of poor adult behaviour? If we have a realistic picture of how few people this involves, I would hope not.
Do teenage girls get pregnant to get on the benefit? Teenage girls get pregnant either because we have inadequate sex education in this country, or because they genuinely like the idea of becoming mothers. Again, in any society there will be a portion of young women for whom family life is a career option. You may think this limits that girl’s life options and potential, but she may not. Given nearly 30% youth unemployment, other career options may not be a reality for many young girls anyway.
On a more controversial note, given our need to increase our population numbers (the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis says by 2023 those aged over 65 will be greater than numbers of children 0-14) is this really such a terrible thing? What these young mothers need is support to be great mothers and they may be part of the solution to supporting your old age.
In New Zealand to be poor is to have no value to society in a country where we are valued for what we do and what we have. For the almost one quarter of children growing up in impoverished households, there is the harsh reality of not knowing whether the food will turn up tonight, of poor health from overcrowding, inadequate heating and clothing and the shame of having little (you certainly don’t invite friends over to play). There is also the impact of the stress within that household.
Poverty breeds violence and despair. Relationships come under inordinate stress and fall apart. Why are poor people using drugs, gambling, smoking and buying things on tick that they can’t afford? They are killing pain, guilt and shame.
If they looked in your eyes, what would they see? The compassion of Christ, the acceptance of the One who sat with prostitutes and sinners, or the suspicion and judgement that our society seems to quick to heap on beneficiaries and struggling families?
May we be God’s people in our neighbourhoods.
Here are a few random ideas, some of which are being attempted by churches and community groups:
- Free tables and garages – find space to store excess goods, clothing, furniture, for ready distribution.
- Allocate people in your congregation who can assess needs and match them to resources.
- Have people who are knowledgable about local support agencies and resources.
- Create “Christ spaces” in your homes for urgent hospitality – rooms for urgent housing.
- Have skills banks, where people are registered to offer time to practical things for others and also to coach others in driving, household maintenance, care maintenance, gardening etc.
- Tool libraries where things can be borrowed rather than bought.
- Time banking. People sign up with what kind of time and abilities they have to offer (babysitting, gardening etc.) and when you give time, you have credit that you can give away.
All other ideas encouraged and welcomed!
Some sobering statistics:
- About 25% of children live in poverty or hardship, with most of those in beneficiary households (vulnerability reports: www.justiceandcompassion.org.nz). My experience is that those households traditionally have had contact with some family member who helped out and was working. With rising unemployment this is no longer the case for many families.
- The youth unemployment rate is around 20% and closer to 30% among Maori and Pacific young people.
- The estimated annual cost of youth unemployment, youth incarceration and youth on the sole parent benefit is around $900 million.
- 50% of the prison population was in foster care at some stage.
- Teen births are associated with deprivation, poorer child outcomes in educational achievement, and higher rates of offending (children of teens). New Zealand has the second highest rate of teen pregnancy in the OECD (MSD 2010).
- 27% of children in New Zealand aged 9 to 13 years have witnessed family violence (MSD 2011).
– Ruby Duncan, CEO Iosis Family Solutions