Poverty then – and now…

Sometimes the stuff that spills out of  old box files on their way to the bin, are not only worth  remembering, but keeping.

One  we found  was Windows on Poverty, a 1992 Report  from the New Zealand  Council of Christian Social Services on Poverty in New Zealand.  It was well on its way to pile in  one of those  purges we hoarders  are  told  we must do.  But  caught between  the  need to clear  out stuff – and hoard,   we once more hoarded. Why? So  we don’t forget, so we don’t allow it to happen  again. Not in Godzone.

This report  illustrated the way  both Labour and National Governments in the 1980s and 1990s forgot social ideals,  abandoned the poor and made the rich much richer.  This was  in the high summer of the neo-liberal experiment where there was ‘no alternative’.

Labour cut taxes in 1988; National cut welfare benefits three years later. Both measures had ‘large impacts’ on the way income was distributed according to Paul Dalziel from Canterbury University’s Department of Economics in an analysis of  Windows.

He  wrote: ‘The highest income twenty per cent  of full time wage and salary earners increased their disposable income by 7 percent between 1987 and 1992 while the lowest twenty percent suffered a decrease of 2.9%. Almost all beneficiaries suffered cuts of between 2.9% and 24.7%’.  And he added:

‘The reduction in benefit levels is conceptually equivalent to an increase in tax imposed on beneficiaries’. And you can see  through the eyes of those who worked for the poor and  contributed to Windows,  how much it hurt.

In Porirua Captain Raewyn Fridd from the Salvation Army  Community and Family Services noted increased numbers using the Army’s services.

They included low waged people as well as those on benefits, and people with mortgages as well as those paying rent she noted.

“On an individual level some people are no longer making an effort. They are seeing no end to their struggle and are giving up and not looking after themselves, resulting in mental, emotional, and physical neglect” she added, listing the everyday battles of  the poor:

  • People are no long running hot water to clean.
  • Parents are no longer ‘trying’ for the children’s sake.
  • Children with behaviour problems.
  • Fleas, lice cockroaches in epidemic proportions.
  • Men who sit and do nothing all day. Crowded conditions, people on top of each other. No personal privacy.
  • Women suffering from depression.

In South Auckland at about the same time Rosalie Conder, a Sister of Compassion and a Parish Worker, found mothers wearing only cotton frocks, jeans and tee shirts, going barefoot and cold and  preferring to clothe the families before themselves. They lived in homes without carpet, not even mats, homes where there were no heaters because heating was too expensive.

“And the children – what met the eye was often quite sickening and unbelievable as I found situations which I had hitherto believed existed only overseas in Third World  countries” she said.

“Children with ‘glue-ear’, chronic runny noses and sticky eyes, body rashes, cold and crying. Often they were in the care of a cold, frustrated and impatient mother, who did not know where else she could go to relieve the stress. Added to this were many instances  of outbreaks of chicken pox, measles, scabies and head lice, which reached epidemic proportions. Parents failed to take children to the doctor knowing they would be unable to afford to pay for the prescriptions.

The Council had predicted much of this trauma much earlier – at the 1984 Economic Summit Conference at the beginning of the economic ‘reforms’. Its chairman, Father Brian Sherry told the conference:

“Those who make the decisions – the powerful and the privileged – are at the top of their own lake of affluence. They drink fully. By the time any other benefits have trickled down through our economic system, there are only drops remaining for many of our New Zealanders”.

“The human face of our economic involvement to this point has left many of our beneficiaries, breathing but certainly not living. Poverty, hopelessness, alienation, injustices are all part of our society – certainly not for many people in this Chamber, but for a vast number of our fellow New Zealanders”.

In their 1992 Report The Council found that in March of that year,  250,000 children – 26% of all children – had their principal caregiver or parent on a welfare benefit. That indicated how many had been hurt by National’s benefit cuts. There are plenty of  dreary stats in the publication but one shows how the state dealt with its clients:

‘Case study for a 50-year-old woman who lives in a two bedroom home placed on her own.

Women’s alone benefit $135

Housing Corp rent:  July 1991, 25% of income,  March 1992, 35% of income, July 1993, 68%.

“The reality is that tenants will not be able to pay the increased rents for their Housing Corporation homes. People first had their benefits cut and now they face these enormous rent rises” said the report.

That was then, so what degree of  poverty is there now? According to the 2017 Child Poverty Monitor report 12% of children live in households that go without seven or more things they need for their well-being.

That’s 135,000 Kiwi kids. ‘Seven up’ material hardship is missing out, cutting back or being unable to pay for seven or more things from a list of 17 everyday essentials’ said the report. Child monitor claims that 6% of Kiwi kids go without nine of those everyday essentials – 70,000 Kiwi kids.

And in 2017 the Council once again warned: ‘There is poverty amidst prosperity: There are around 682,500 people in poverty in this country or one in seven households, including around 220,000 children…’

The challenge remains: ditch the winners/losers style of economic management. The government is showing that there are, after all,  progressive alternatives.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.