Last Friday I was on our 6 year old’s school trip as parent help. It was a terrific day, even if it was exhausting for kids and adults as we marched up and down Wellington’s Mount Victoria.
Teacher aides from the school came along with us teachers and parents too. Just like at school, they looked out for kids with extra learning and behavioural needs. They were the eyes, ears, brains and hands to make sure every kid on that trip was supported and having fun.
Inclusive education is a big focus of our local school and I’m very proud the school makes as much funding available as possible for support staff like teacher aides. The ‘operations grant’ – money from the Government – simply isn’t enough to resource all the kids’ needs without lots of fundraising. Families make the effort because teacher aides, administrators, librarians, technicians, kaiārahi and many others are hugely important for our kids. Schools can’t function without them.
You can imagine how gutted I was when I heard on the radio that nearly half of primary and intermediate schools were expecting to cut teacher aide hours this year in order to make ends meet.
This totally floored me. Half of schools cutting teacher aides? That can’t happen. The negative impact on children is unthinkable.
But of course schools are, because the previous Government cut the budget that funds these positions, and there is no way local fundraising can keep up. They cut it despite the fact that most of these support staff are incredibly skilled, and incredibly low paid.
And surprise, surprise, most support staff are women.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I don’t want to see schools cutting teacher aide hours. You probably don’t either. But it’s happening because you and I, supposedly, ‘benefited’ from years of successive tax cuts under the last Government. Some rich men, much richer than us definitely benefited more.
I think we need to realise, as we mark International Women’s Day, that tax and public services are gendered issues.
As Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan pointed out when she visited us last year, if you have a Government that likes to throw around tax cuts – less government, more market – that is a double whammy for women.
Firstly, men pocket more in tax cuts. This is because employers pay men more than they pay women, and men work more paid hours, whereas women’s work is more often unpaid, even when it supports others to stay in paid work.
Secondly, women are more likely to both provide public services to others (like nursing, teaching, and social work) and women and their families are more likely to use public services (like schools, healthcare, and subsidised public transport).
Thankfully, the new Government has committed to reversing National’s plans for even more irresponsible tax cuts. There is a good new agenda, based on job creation, pay equity, halting child poverty, reducing carbon emissions, fixing the housing crisis, patching up our health system, and putting money back into the Super Fund for the future.
But - and it’s a big but- to get all this good stuff done, we are going to face some giant budgeting challenges. There are years of social deficit left by the previous Government, as well as systemic issues like poverty caused decades ago.
My economist colleague Bill Rosenberg says the Government is making life harder for itself by a self-imposed limit on investment in our people and public services. At a time when interest rates are low, the ‘Budget Responsibility Rules’ (BRR) restrict the Government from borrowing money and spending it despite our schools, hospitals, rest homes, libraries, pools and everything else you can think of crying out for cash.
The student movement has a saying that student debt is ‘bad for all, worse for women’. And I fear this is the case too with the Budget Responsibility Rules.
The focus of many public campaigns this year is building a world where women at home and at work are respected, valued and supported. Women just like teacher aides, librarians and the other amazing professionals at my son’s school.
We need more women than ever to hold up our public services and we need them to be properly paid for this vital work. New Zealander of the Year Kristine Bartlett and her 55,000 strong team led the way with care and support workers. Now, there are many more groups of women who are expecting wage justice.
These women have waited more than forty years to be paid what they are legally owed. What a tragedy it would be if, when we have the right mood for change, the right equal pay law, and a Government that’s ready to advance social services, the BRR is the thin piece of paper that jams the wheels of women’s progress?
Unions are going to be talking about tax and revenue this year. We’re going to do it on the Tax Working Group, but we’re also going to be talking to working people, like you. We’ve got to move tax talk from something Treasury does with excel spreadsheets to something we all do by making decisions about the kinds of communities we want to have.
Looking at all the happy kids on the school trip, I would be happy for my tax to fund a few more teacher aides and to pay them properly. I suspect you’d feel more secure if we had the extra nurses we all need, and your neighbours would want to know the library is staying open. It’s just that we haven’t talked about it yet.
So on International Women’s Day, let’s start. If you would be happy to talk tax with your friends and family, sign up here and we will be in touch later in the year. And you can help the conversation by asking the people you care about to talk about tax too. No spreadsheets involved.