A novel project aimed at giving 100 low-income families a public voice has found that almost all of them want to work - but face barriers that need to be overcome.
The year-long project has found many poor families feel "trapped" in unemployment by the cost of study, lack of transport, poor health, past criminal records, the time demands of dealing with multiple agencies, and by low-paid casualised work which is less secure than a benefit.
But they also have ideas on how to overcome these barriers, such as restoring training allowances for sole parents, free health care and subsidised dental care for low-income families, publicising the right for ex-criminals to "wipe the slate clean" for minor offences after seven crime-free years, more personalised social services, higher minimum wages and tougher monitoring of casual work contracts.
"Our families tell us that income levels, including the minimum wage and base benefit levels, must be reviewed to ensure that the most basic human needs of food, shelter, healthcare and education may be met without the need for them to take on crippling and unsustainable debt," a report on the project says.
The project has been carried out by Auckland City Mission staff and academics with 100 families who have been long-term users of some of the 70 foodbanks which the mission supplies from Kaitaia to Thames.
"Today, thousands of families rely on foodbanks as their regular source of food," the report says. "The increasing long-term use of the mission's foodbank is a growing concern."
The project has found eight barriers that trap people in poverty and suggests ways to overcome each one.
By definition, foodbank users have no money in the bank so the only way they can meet any unexpected cost is to borrow, either from Work and Income, family and friends or moneylenders. Each option has problems.
"It's too frustrating because their [Work and Income] laws have changed and they need so much more from us... the travelling for budgeting and everything else they want us to go collect. Instead of going to WINZ for help, rather just go to finances [finance companies]," one mother says.
Another says: "It was because my son's biological family, his biological Nana, at the time she was going through rough stuff but she really needed money and I was able to get it for her.... I got a grand and a half or a couple of grand and she was supposed to make the weekly payments, but that didn't happen."
But when families go to finance companies instead, they pay what City Missioner Diane Robertson calls a "poverty premium" -- "You could pay 6 per cent, they could pay 26 per cent."
The families suggest setting a cap on interest rates by law and developing low-interest lending such as a $10 million "affordable loans" scheme being developed by the Bank of NZ and the Government with the Salvation Army and Good Shepherd NZ.
Many of the families also owe money in fines, often because they couldn't afford to get their cars registered or warranted. Many also have someone in the family with a more serious criminal record, which makes it hard to get a job and also creates extra costs for other family members to visit an offender while in jail.
"Petrol costs, travelling from South Auckland out to Albany [Paremoremo prison], clearly it's not a cheap trip so I hardly ever took the children," a mother remembers.
Another says her partner "has been to so many job interviews and he just keeps getting shot down... he can't even apply for a clean slate until he's paid his fines and he's still paying those off and it's going to take him forever."
Many families don't know about the clean slate law. They suggest providing more information about it and "humanising" prison visiting areas so offenders can talk and play with their children.
Families are doubling-up or living in damp, unsafe houses because they can't afford the bond and other costs of moving to a better home, or because rental agents turn them away due to bad credit records.
In one mother's words: "It's cold and the rooms aren't that big and I could do something better, but I don't have money to move so I feel trapped really."
A father who shares a three-bedroom state house with his wife and eight children says: "My 17-month-old and my 3-year-old boy are sleeping in the room with us. Sometimes I sleep on the floor cos my boys like their space... I let my daughter sleep with the boys -- halve the rooms up for them and I don't have enough beds... so they have to share a single bed each."
The families suggest regulating standards for both state and private rentals.
"Almost every participant views employment as being central to his or her security or wellbeing," the report says. But they are held back by transport and childcare problems and the costs of study, which means many are limited to low-paid casual work which is less secure than a benefit.
One mother has volunteered at two childcare centres and both have offered her paid jobs, but she can't take up the offers without doing a three-year course which she can't afford. Added to her partner's debt, a student loan would make budgeting impossible.
A working father says: "After 20 hours, they take 80 cents to the dollar, what's the point of going to work? I still do it, but I've just got to work that little bit harder and because I'm only casual I haven't got... I'd just love to be 110 per cent away from Work and Income altogether, but I've still got to have them there as that safeguard."
The families suggest raising the minimum wage and closer monitoring of casual work contracts to give them more security.
Damp, overcrowded houses are incubators for infections spread by bacteria and vermin. Low income forces families to put off going to the doctor and to ignore prescriptions. Many pull out their own teeth because they can't afford a dentist. Poor health and missing teeth only make it harder to get a job.
A father says: "You don't eat well, you don't sleep well, you don't look well, you don't look healthy, you're not motivated to work, and then you feel depressed and you feel like committing suicide."
A mother who was homeless when she gave birth prematurely and had to live in a car with her new baby and two other children says: "I don't hardly go to doctors... sometimes when I go to the doctor's and they said, 'Oh, you haven't made a payment.' Yeah, I know, but I will try to after."
The families suggest free healthcare and subsidised dental care for low-income families.
When rent and debts take up almost all of your income, food is what gets squeezed. Families often keep children home from school if there is no food for their lunches because they don't want them singled out if the school has to feed them. They are ashamed to ask family members for help, and often become isolated because they don't want to let people see that they have no food in their homes.
"I don't like sending my kids to school when I know I can't feed them at school, but I know I can feed them at home with whatever we've got," one mother says. "I ring the school and I have to lie to them and tell them that they're not feeling well."
Another says: "My girls have gone for two days without food, two straight days, and the effects of having no food is they sleep, they're weak."
The families would like decile 1 and 2 schools to provide lunches for all children.
7. Social services
Many families are involved with multiple social services but constantly have to tell their stories again to staff they don't know. Housing NZ and Work and Income both make them ring call centres first. Work and Income abandoned personalised case managers to cut costs in 2010, but revived them last year for 85,000 beneficiaries earmarked for "intensive case management".
As one mother says: "If you talk to a person face to face it's good that you're dealing with a human being, a person, and that person can see what you actually feel and what's actually inside you... but when you're speaking to somebody on the phone and giving them all what you want, it doesn't feel good... they don't feel how deep inside that you're hurt."
The families request more personalised services and systems that keep their stories on file so they don't have to keep repeating them.
Families know that education is the way to get a good job and get out of poverty, but often can't afford childcare or transport to tertiary campuses. Often they're pushed instead into Work and Income-funded courses but still can't get jobs.
A father says: "I suppose I could go back and do a course, but I've done so many over the years. I've done them all, I've done my licence through them, I've done budgeting through them, I've done commercial work through them and it's all there -- I've got a big box full of all the work I've done."
A mother says: "You pay an arm and a leg to go on a course and get a qualification and end up in a cleaning job."
The families suggest restoring the training incentive allowance, which was axed in 2009, and requiring course providers to guarantee jobs at the end of each course.
Read the full report here:
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