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Churches forge new tools to overcome poverty in NZ

By Paul Titus

Despite the economy’s steady performance and the lowest unemployment figures in decades, poverty is entrenched in Aotearoa-New Zealand and churches are developing new ways to overcome it.

In recent years church leaders have met with leading politicians to discuss such social issues as affordable housing, health, and gambling. Now churches want to engage other sectors of society and local congregations to improve the well-being of those left behind by the structural reforms that began in the 1980s.

The New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services (NZCCSS) carries out research and lobbying on behalf of the social service agencies affiliated with churches. National director of social policy for the Salvation Army of NZ Major Campbell Roberts heads up NZCCSS initiatives on housing and poverty.

Campbell says in recent years churches have moved beyond charitable efforts that meet the immediate needs of the poor to take on the policies that create poverty.

“There are two things we have to do to address poverty. One is to target the people who are poor. Churches do that but they also have to target the people who make decisions.”

One way churches address decision makers is twice-yearly meetings with cabinet ministers and opposition parties. Campbell says church leaders’ opinions can be influential. Their views on housing are well-respected, for example, and they had some impact in changes to gambling laws.

More can be done in this regard, however. Campbell suggests child poverty is an issue the government should treat more seriously.

“The government looks after the elderly better than it looks after children. This government hasn’t really responded to the well to address child poverty,” he says.

Rev Jim Stuart is one of the speakers who will address a conference on theology and poverty in Christchurch in February. He says increasingly churches recognise that poverty is a systemic problem and not the result of some people’s unwillingness to work.

Jim wants to see churches become stronger advocates for the poor and agitate to keep the issues in front of government. And, he says, the churches could be more ambitious and idealistic in their proposals.

“We could for example, tax the rich so that incomes are limited to a certain level and others have enough to live on. Or we could advocate for a social responsibility act.

“We now have the fiscal responsibility act which requires that we monitor the economy to make sure we are fiscally responsible and keep inflation low. Government should also monitor the social policies it implements to determine how they impact people,” Jim says.

Campbell believes churches should widen their base and get the anti-poverty message out to the education sector, the media, and the business and financial community.

“If the church community talks to government that is one silo. Business sends another message, education another. We need to bring all these groups together and develop the single message that poverty doesn’t only hurt those people in the worst situations, it is bad for the whole country. We need a community with shared values and directions or we won’t make an impact.”

The Salvation Army’s family mentoring scheme and the Methodist Church’s Breaking the Cycle initiative are the kinds of programmes that can change attitudes, strengthen families, and help people achieve their own goals. But Campbell believes attitudes of the business community are ready to change as well.

“Most affluent people are not disinterested in the poor but they have no connection with them. Business people are open to other alternatives and many are concerned about poverty,” Campbell says.

NZCCSS executive officer Paula Skilling agrees that while it is important for churches to work with government to improve the lot of vulnerable people, it is necessary to change social opinion as well. Lobbying the government is not enough if the public is not aware of the issues because politicians will only respond to popular pressure.

For this reason Paula supports the Methodist Church’s new ‘Breaking the Cycle’ programme which aims to help parishes address the problem of poverty in their communities. Through the initiative local churches can get the resources they need to assess and understand the nature of poverty around them and take action to change it.

Among those resources are NZCCSS statistics that show too many NZers have to survive on very low incomes, children are disproportionately affected by poverty, and poverty means people live with hunger, unaffordable housing, and bad health.

“But,” Paula says, “poverty is not just statistics. It happens to us and the people around us so we have to hear the stories of real people.”

Through ‘Breaking the Cycle’ congregations can learn how to do a community survey to find out who lives in poverty in their local community.

Along with remembering these people in worship services, they are encouraged to act – not only by meeting the immediate need by such means as contributing to a food bank but also by addressing the underlying by such means as writing to an MP to express anger at the need to keep supporting food banks.