To the rest of the world, New Zealand looks like a utopia right now. COVID-19 free, and lead by a fast-moving, confident, competent Prime Minister. We can be rightly proud of leading the way on public health in our pandemic response. It feels good, right?
But what about our track record in another important area of health - crushing poverty?
Everyone in our country has a warm, dry, safe place to live. A place where there is enough food on the table and in cupboards to ensure that everyone can grow and learn and work. Where everyone has enough income to pay the power bill, to go to the doctor, or to buy or fix the washing machine when it breaks or buy new shoes when the old ones wear out.
How good would it feel if we could just as proudly say that was all true?
New Zealand is not the equal paradise so many of us wish for. But we can choose to do something about it, and, just like our leadership in crushing the COVID curve, we can choose to crush and eliminate poverty in this country. We can all have our basic needs met and ensure that those that have the least have more.
To do this, our Government can decide to put in a suite of policies that would create higher incomes for people in low-paid work, by getting rid of unfair contracting practices, making Fair Pay Agreements happen, and Government money only going to good jobs which pay the Living Wage.
But the simplest and most immediate fix the Government could make tomorrow is lifting those people and families out of the most grinding material poverty, those living on benefits.
The Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s (WEAG) first key principle in redesigning the income support system was that it be ‘… adequate for meaningful participation in the community and maintains this support over time’. There were many changes that they proposed – for example:
- Immediate increases in benefits from $130 to $350 depending on the benefit
- Extending the abatement and income thresholds for Working for Families
- Applying benefits on an individual rather than a household basis
- Allowing people to earn more before their benefit abated.
This call for a substantial rise in benefits and changes to the underlying benefit rules was strongly supported by the CTU. Union members know that increasingly over the last 30 years, benefit levels have been allowed to fall to below a dignified level, and have advocated for change, because nobody has to live in poverty, inside or outside of paid work. Because here’s the thing. Unemployment is structural in our economy. ‘Full employment’ so beloved of economists – something we hit pre COVID - is actually 4% of the workforce - or 111,000 people - without any paid work. And yes it affects Māori, Pasifika, young people and women disproportionately more.
The recent $25 increase, the ‘pegging’ to wages and the temporary increase to the Winter Energy payment – while welcome for those that can access them – does not address the deep, humanitarian issues outlined in the WEAG report. All the more important because a proportion of people not in paid work is hard wired into our economy. The least we can do is look after those of us unlucky enough to be in this situation.
The CTU also welcomed the report’s acknowledgement that the nature of work is changing. Increasingly employers are not providing secure dependable employment. COVID may have highlighted the risks to people in paid work now, but it has been a long, quietly growing problem.
Right now though - today, yesterday, before anything else - the Government has a suite of recommendations, on welfare reform that could wipe out the worst poverty suffered in New Zealand, for good.
It isn’t just in a pandemic that people get sick, are restructured, are replaced by a checkout scanner, are disabled, leave a violent relationship, have their home taken away. It doesn’t take someone being made redundant to make someone’s quality of life worth supporting, a healthy and happy life worth living.
That feeling of pride in our country in a crisis shouldn’t take a global crisis to achieve. We can choose to be a place where everyone can thrive – and be truly a team of 5 million, proudly in this together.