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Government policies creating NZ of rich and poor

By David Hines

Governments need to target poverty directly, rather than leaving poor people to benefit from spinoffs from policies that were not designed with them in mind. That was the view Major Campbell Roberts, director of the Salvation Army’s social policy parliamentary unit, expressed to a meeting hosted by Pitt St Methodist Church in Auckland on August 17.

“How government policies impact on the poor leads to a far more troubling question: ‘Do government policies in New Zealand ever really target the poor in a way that will assist them?’ There are policies that directly target the poor but, sadly, they are usually where government want to limit or control in some way how the poor act,” Campbell said.

“Generally, since the mid-1980s we have been happy to settle for partial targets in the poverty area that we would not be happy with in other areas of government policy such as free trade.”

Campbell gave details of child poverty from a report by the Children’s Commissioner. In 2006-2007 there were 230,000 New Zealand children living in poverty. This means 22 percent of our children are in households with incomes below the 60 percent median income poverty line.

Child poverty rates are declining but still above the average of other developed countries, and the rate of poverty for children in sole-parent families (49 percent) is five times as high as for children in couple households (9 percent). Poverty rates were also significantly higher among Maori and Pacifica children.

In addition to the numbers, Campbell gave ‘snapshots’ from his own experience. These included a case at the Salvation Army’s South Auckland centre where a social worker experienced the pain of a mother whose husband had been made redundant. The family was unable to pay the rent for their flat, so they moved in with another family. They soon found they were in a household of people heavily into P and criminal activities. The mother had come to the Salvation Army petrified at what was going to happen to her children.

Campbell said the statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest government policies are mainly addressing the needs of the labour market and middle income New Zealanders. He discussed four major social policies of recent times: KiwiSaver, NZ Super, Working for Families and free early childcare provisions.

He said the NZ Superannuation Fund was a good social policy but the poor were the least likely to benefit from it, because they tended to die younger and so had a shorter period of retirement. Priority should be given to policies that would reduce the death rates of poorer people.

Working for Families programmes are designed to make work pay, i.e. to address the reality of working poor. But Campbell said many of those not in work are unable to work because of sickness or disability, or because they are looking after dependent family members (usually children).

“Quite predictably, under Working for Families more single parents went to work and the number of people on the DPB declined from around 110,000 in 2002 to around 90,000 today. However the question is what happened to the children of single parents who were suddenly seeing less of their parent? In the community where I live we are seeing more problems with young children who are not so supervised.”

Campbell said policies of successive governments appear to be creating two New Zealands. “One New Zealand is those with comfortable incomes and substantial assets. The other is the low paid and marginally employed who have few if any assets. This division has been created by economic policies that do not have the eradication of poverty as a major goal.”

To change the future for children at risk of educational failure, poor health, and violence we to:

  • pass laws that allow communities more control over the operation of liquor and gambling outlets in their areas,
  • build more early childhood education centres in low income communities,
  • provide more financial assistance to schools in poorer communities.

Campbell concluded: An urgent task faces New Zealand, to develop policies that carefully target the reduction of poverty as a goal in itself. We need a government brave enough to give a date by which poverty and inequality can be reduced.