This bipartisan failure is not okay

New Zealand's poverty problem risks becoming a catastrophe in the wake of the pandemic. Shane Te Pou argues the new government can't afford to take the incrementalist approach so far favoured on both sides of the aisle.

This is the Covid election, with other issues understandably taking a back seat. Just finding our feet in this brave new world, especially while the crisis still rumbles on, is consuming most of the available political oxygen. But there remain public policy challenges we will need the new Government to address in tandem with the Covid-19 response, especially since the pandemic will undoubtedly make them more urgent than ever. Nowhere is this more the case than the issue of poverty, a scourge we perpetually fail to eradicate.  

That’s why it was gratifying to see Anita Baker, the Mayor of Porirua, place the issue front and centre last week in a powerful interview with John Campbell. Baker had just released her Council’s latest status report on the status of children and young people in the city. I downloaded the full report, to take a closer look, and the Mayor is right: it’s not good enough. Across a whole range of indicators assessed prior to lockdown, including school attendance and truancy, oral health and housing, it painted a pretty grim picture. It echoes what I hear from friends and whānau across the country: pockets of social and economic deprivation are getting more, not less, entrenched.  

None of this is to point the finger at the current Coalition. This has been a bipartisan failure that reflects a lack of policy ambition in favour of the more incrementalist approach preferred on both sides of the aisle. Policies may differ at the margins but, fundamentally, Labour and National have opted to chip away at the problem - a little bit here, a little bit there.  

Kids go hungry as a result of the pittance their parents currently get. Are you okay with that? I’m not.  

In truth, as citizens, and as a society, we can’t avoid the lion’s share of the blame for this state of affairs. Politicians, whatever their divergent convictions, tend only to act decisively when all other options have been exhausted. When it comes to poverty in New Zealand, we just haven’t put much pressure on. Leaders don’t pay a price for failing to address it - and, until they do, most likely won’t.  

But, as Anita Baker says, the crisis of child poverty laid out in the Porirua status report risks turning into a catastrophe in the wake of the pandemic. Already troubling trends will accelerate. And fixing it will become an ever more complex challenge the longer we fail to address it. The new government, whatever form it takes, will either tackle it head-on or will be left to mop up the consequences of failing to. 

This is not beyond our reach. Poverty of the kind still commonplace in New Zealand is not an immutable fact of life. It’s the outcome of the choices we make, and we can make better choices. 

For a start, we can choose to increase benefits to a level that allows families to live in some dignity. After all, by setting the wage subsidy at roughly double the jobseeker’s allowance, the Government more or less conceded that what we pay now is woefully inadequate. Newsroom's Bernard Hickey is right to call it a “two-tiered” unemployment benefits system, and it’s untenable. Kids go hungry as a result of the pittance their parents currently get. Are you okay with that? I’m not.  

We can choose to build more social housing, allowing families to transition into ownership over time, to create stronger, healthier neighbourhoods. The problem with KiwiBuild wasn’t just with its implementation - it’s that it was a middle-class endeavour from the outset. My hope is the next government takes advantage of historically low-interest rates to build more and better homes in poorer communities. If it’s a Labour-led government, which seems likely, they have a rich legacy to draw on, that of Fraser, Semple and Savage. These were leaders who redrafted the social contract and made ours a better and fairer society. Nothing but a shortage of political will stops us from doing the same this century as we did last.  

We can choose to put dental nurses back in schools. We can address digital exclusion by ensuring every child has the devices and connectivity they need for today’s world. We can provide school lunches where needed, without turning to the voluntary sector as if it’s not the government’s problem.  

We can choose to expand and improve access to primary health care, including mental health and addiction services. We can create more apprenticeships and boost vocational training. Above all, we can make the minimum wage a living wage.  

Poverty is complex and multi-faceted. No one has all the answers. But there are practical, obvious measures that will make a tangible and immediate difference in people’s lives.

When it comes to reducing poverty in Aotearoa, incrementalism wasn’t working before Covid-19. In its aftermath, the case for a transformational approach is more compelling and urgent than ever.

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