By Peter Malcolm
Teachers see a lot. They don't need more reports from economic think tanks or the OECD or the UN to know there's a housing crisis, a wealth gap, and that we're letting more and more of our children fall into poverty.
They see it every day, and they see it long before it shows up in all those charts and graphs and reports.
But of course it's not just teachers who see what's going on, we all do, whether we're on the front line of the crisis or not. We all live in communities. We all have friends, family and neighbours.
We're all connected. Which is why concern about inequality in New Zealand won't go away, and why we need to keep up the pressure in the run-up to the September election.
I retired from teaching in 2000 after 40 years and the rising inequalities I saw were multiple: between rich and poor, between Māori and Pākehā, between people who were healthy and those who weren't, between the well and the poorly housed and, of particular interest to me, between schools.
Because that's another thing about inequality. No matter how many reports are written and statistics graphed, none of them can capture the depth and breadth of its reach.
I've visited state secondary schools with such wide disparities in resources you'd be forgiven for thinking they were in different countries.
Why is that important? Because it's yet another way inequality replicates itself, filtering through into every part of life, making sure the next generation has even more to overcome just to get to the starting gate.
In Tauranga where I've lived and worked for 34 years, the story is the same. A quick look at the deprivation index maps produced by Otago University reveals huge disparities within the city and across the Bay of Plenty region, with most of the eastern part of the Bay maxing out at 10 on 10-point deprivation scale.
Working at the front end of some of that deprivation are groups like Tauranga's Good Neighbour Trust which connects with many families while developing community, and also rescues food from supermarkets and cafes that would otherwise go to waste, distributing about a tonne of it every day to local charities.
Jackie and John Paine, who work at Good Neighbour, say the groups they help are seeing more and more people, many of them with fulltime jobs, who simply can't make ends meet.
Among its 50 clients, Good Neighbour has around eight early childhood groups.
"The primary reason that they give for needing the food," John says, "is that kids are arriving at school without food; they're hungry and they don't learn very well."
Some children, Jackie told us, don't even get to pre-school in the first place because their families are too embarrassed to send them along without food in their backpacks.
Amid the heartbreaking stories, though, John and Jackie see some positives, one of which is awareness, followed closely by an increasing willingness to take action. "Community is starting to happen again," Jackie says. "So you're seeing people working together more.
"You're seeing families moving back in together, you're seeing people looking out for their neighbours a lot more."
You're also seeing more people more willing to speak out, to demand change, to hold politicians to account.
I was amused to read a recent NZ Institute of Economic Research report that seemed confused about why New Zealanders were increasingly worried about inequality even though the wealth gap hasn't budged much in recent years.
We're worried precisely because it hasn't budged. Inequality hurts everyone, not just the poor, and it's been far too high for far too long.
At Closing the Gap, we're asking you to keep on being worried, to keep on hassling politicians about it, to keep on being willing to help your neighbours, to keep on caring, in whatever way you can.
• Peter Malcolm is a retired secondary school principal and spokesman for the income equality group Closing the Gap: www.closingthegap.org.nz