Good to see focus on living wage

By Nicola Young

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Wellington freelance journalist Max Rashbrooke has written about the growing gulf between rich and poor in New Zealand.
Wellington freelance journalist Max Rashbrooke has written about the growing gulf between rich and poor in New Zealand.

Last week I kicked off with quoting my mum ... this week, it's my dad.

He's been helping the Wanganui Intermediate School production, lifting scenery at the Opera House and bringing back memories for me as I was in the intermediate's 1985 production of Joseph and His Technicolor Dream Coat (one of the brothers of the man himself).

Given my focus on volunteering last week, he asked how many hours of volunteer time have gone into this year's effort. The answer: 350 hours, without counting the parents in the background supporting the stars of the show.

It appears one of our mayoral candidates thinks councillors should be 100 per cent volunteers, stating at Monday evening's mayoral debate that they shouldn't be paid.

An effective councillor puts in many hours above attending meetings and if their true hours were calculated the rate would be getting close to the "living wage" of $18.40 per hour for the conscientious, hardworking ones.

But the living wage is not an option for some in Whanganui, so I suppose we must be grateful we live in such an affordable city, and not in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch where the cost of housing is significantly higher.

I've been pleased to see the Wellington City Council is discussing in election debates the introduction of a "living wage". I haven't seen it raised here yet but we have 29 permanent council employees paid less than $18.40 an hour.

I don't want to imagine how hard it is to feed a growing family on low incomes today - it's been a long time since I felt butterflies in my stomach when passing over the eftpos card, wondering whether it would be declined.

Author Max Rashbrooke visited our city last week to talk about his book, Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, and his message was that in the countries with a smaller gap between the top and bottom earners, all members of that society appear to benefit from a range of health and social measures, including better life expectancy, children's education outcomes, lower infant mortality, fewer teenage births and a lower murder rate.

Rashbrooke acknowledged that the answers were complex and didn't simply lie in lifting low incomes, as the studies show that these social problems are only weakly related to average incomes. The key factor is the gap between rich and poor and in New Zealand that has skyrocketed in the past 30 years, so we are now one of the most unequal countries in the world, chasing up the United States.

I'll never forget the woman I spoke to many years ago when I was a reporter for the Evening Standard in Palmerston North on the eve of the introduction of market-related rents. She shared the personal sacrifices she'd made, including forgoing dental care and the incredibly tight budget she stuck to so she could feed her children healthy meals while saving for their swimming lessons. It was clear to me that she was trapped in a vicious cycle.

By contrast, I was living comfortably, a home-owner in my 20s - how did I get there? I was born to working parents but I achieved well at school and went to university, with my parents paying for half my education and I paid off the rest of my student loan in seven years.

I got pay rises and promotions, so saving for my deposit - less than next month's 20 per cent requirement - was achievable, although it felt challenging.

I haven't had income-affecting events - I don't have a disability or long-term illness, I've never lost my job, I didn't have children until my 30s.

How much credit do I deserve for my personal efforts and how much reflects my advantages in life? How do we judge people for their successes and their challenges in an unequal society?

I don't think asking councillors to give up their pay is a reasonable part of reducing debt or inequality and it would certainly most affect people who don't have alternative income streams.

The solutions don't lie in taking away from people. Instead, as Rashbrooke's book identifies, they lie in building connections to one another.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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