In more than 40 years of working in this sector, I don't remember ever seeing this level of unmet need
You may have heard an increasing number of child poverty experts and frontline support services calling on the Government to increase the amount of income support paid to effectively address poverty in New Zealand.
What you may not have heard about is the recent UMR poll in February showing seven in 10 New Zealanders support this measure.
That number came as a bit of a shock to me. It's not often you get 70 per cent of people behind… well, almost anything really. So why the overwhelming support? I certainly know why I support it – the team at Monte Cecilia are at the coalface of New Zealand's poverty issues every day. We encounter parents afraid to send their children to school because they can't afford to give them lunches and we meet with single mothers living in the garages of overcrowded houses with no way to self-isolate in the event of another Covid outbreak.
But these are stories of quiet desperation which are seldom told in the news. These problems have become so widespread and so obvious that they're impossible to ignore. But I also think if there has been one indisputable benefit of Covid to balance the terrible cost it has extracted, it's that it showed us how powerful we were when we came together as a team of five million.
The plight of the poor in New Zealand is certainly a large-scale problem and it's getting worse. In more than 40 years of working in this sector, I don't remember ever seeing this level of unmet need. A few years ago, Monte Cecilia staff would field 10 to 15 calls a week from families in need, over the past year that number has jumped to 20 to 30 a day.
It illustrates the story of New Zealand's K-shaped Covid recovery: the well-off have bounced back by remote working and increasing their savings, while those on low incomes have faced increased job instability and rising rental prices. We're seeing people living in two different worlds in New Zealand, and Covid has only exacerbated this trend.
Current levels of income support simply aren't enough and they're becoming even more insufficient as time goes on. For reasons that utterly elude me, the poor seem to be hit the hardest by inflation, with the highest rental price increases last year being in South Auckland (averaging 3.5 per cent) according to the Barfoot and Thompson Rental Report for 2020.
In that report, the average rental for an Auckland three-bedroom house hit $595 a week at the start of 2021. If you're working full time on minimum wage with 3 per cent KiwiSaver and no student loan, you'll be earning just $653 after tax. How in the world is anyone supposed to better their own life under those circumstances? Where can they find the resources to do additional study? How are they supposed to afford school uniforms and stationery for their children's schooling while also somehow putting food on the table and keeping the lights on?
The Government desperately needs to apply the same kind of common sense, no-nonsense approach it did during our battle with Covid, instead of providing just enough support for the problem to limp on.
We need to ensure that everyone, whether they are working, caring for children, living with a disability or illness, studying, or have lost their jobs before or because of Covid-19 has a liveable income, and we need to do it now.
There is a Budget approaching on May 20. This is the Government's chance to have a transformational impact on generations of New Zealanders. I hope they take it.
Bernie Smith is the CEO of the Monte Cecilia Housing Trust