Catriona MacLennan: Employment is the best solution

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People want to work, so creating jobs should be the highest priority in battle to reduce poverty.

Child poverty is basically a function of parents not being able to get jobs which pay enough. Photo / Richard Robinson
Child poverty is basically a function of parents not being able to get jobs which pay enough. Photo / Richard Robinson

Congratulations to the New Zealand Herald for its coverage of child poverty issues. They are among the most pressing problems facing New Zealand and represent a blight on our society which will cost us billions in the long-term if we do not act now to find a remedy.

Successive governments have failed utterly to deal with child poverty but now is the perfect time for local Auckland communities to work together to take their own steps.

Poverty often appears to be such a huge issue that people may feel that there is nothing they can do to help.

However, everyone can take little actions which, combined, would make a huge difference.

And that could start with privileged New Zealanders having a better understanding of the grinding poverty in which many less-fortunate Kiwis live.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English told the Weekend Herald that society must accept an obligation to feed hungry children. However, he placed the blame for hungry children on irresponsible parents, stating that: "There's no doubt that there are kids in homes where there is not a strong sense of responsibility."

It is very easy for the most privileged in our society to make such statements. However, examination of a few facts reveals a different picture.

The basic unemployment benefit for people aged 18 and 19 who are living away from home is $170.80 a week. Imagine trying to live on that.

It is impossible to pay for rent, food, power, transport, medical expenses, clothes and everything else from such a small sum.

The basic DPB is $293.58 a week. The invalid's benefit for a single person aged 18 or over is $256.19 a week. The invalid's benefit for a sole parent with children is $336.55 a week.

Of course, beneficiaries may be able to apply for additional help, but these are the basic sums that many New Zealanders are expected to survive on.

Those in low-paying work face a similar financial struggle. The minimum wage in New Zealand is $13.50 an hour, or $540 before tax for a 40-hour week.

There are plenty of New Zealanders who are paid less than that by unscrupulous employers and are too scared of losing their jobs to speak out and ask to be paid their legal entitlement.

It is all but impossible for well-off New Zealanders to comprehend the reality of life in such straitened financial circumstances.

Accordingly, it is my view that politicians and members of groups such as the Welfare Working Group should be sent to South Auckland to live for a month on a basic benefit, including having to find and pay for accommodation. That would provide a real insight into the lives of the most vulnerable New Zealanders.

Without such understanding, it is all too easy for well-off people to advocate policies whose impact their children will never feel.

It is simply insulting to struggling low-income parents to say that they are bad money managers and need budgeting advice.

Actually, they don't need budgeting advice. What they need is a liveable income for their families.

TV3's Campbell Live programme presented a very stark illustration of the difference between rich and poor families when it went to a Decile 1 and a Decile 10 school and filmed what the children had for lunch.

At the Decile 10 school all of the children had nutritious lunches, while at the Decile 1 school only 14 out of 27 students had lunches.

The follow-on to that story would be for the Decile 10 children class to "adopt" the Decile 1 class and provide mentoring and support.

This could include the well-off parents buying ingredients for two sets of school lunches, as well as providing help with literacy and assisting in other ways.

It is easy to dismiss poor parents as irresponsible and uncaring when one doesn't know them. However, when people meet each other and understand their circumstances, attitudes change rapidly.

Most New Zealanders, if confronted with parents and children in need, would want to help them.

Here are 10 ways you can help:

1. Teach a child and an adult to read and write. Thousands of adult New Zealanders can't read and write. Imagine how difficult it is to get a job or participate properly in the community if you can't read and write. Many of those people end up in jail - I know, because I have met hundreds of them in court cells over the years.

2. Mentor a child from a less-fortunate family.

3. Buy a raincoat, a pair of shoes and a warm jersey for a child.

4. Donate to, start up or volunteer to help with a food in schools programme.

5. Organise a working bee and do repairs on the mouldy, ramshackle houses in which many poor New Zealanders live.

6. Set up a local microfinance scheme to provide cheap loans and keep people out of the clutches of loan sharks.

7. People with mechanical expertise could help low income people to buy cheap, reliable cars. A huge cause of poverty is families paying excessive prices and huge interest and loan fees on old, unreliable vehicles.

8. Offer a job to an unemployed person.

9. Provide childcare to a single parent.

10. Provide clothes for an unemployed person seeking work.

Of course, these are all "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" solutions.

The key to ending poverty is jobs. New Zealand should make job creation its number one priority and the country should agree to prioritise jobs growth above everything else.

Jobs provide independence and self-esteem and enable people to support their families properly.

Employment is also the best-possible crime-prevention tool.

When 3700 New Zealanders queued up two years ago for a few hundred, low-paying jobs at Auckland supermarkets, they were not demonstrating an entrenched culture of welfare dependence in this country.

Rather, they illustrated both a serious lack of jobs and a desperate desire by unemployed people to work.

* Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist.

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