It's hard for most people to get their heads around the Government's Budgets but pretty nigh impossible for a bunch of underprivileged Northland kids to explain what they thought about the latest fiscal number-crunching.
At the 2019 Budget Analysis by the local branch of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) on Whangārei on Wednesday, nine students who have already graduated from the school of hard knocks but are currently at Kaitaia's Alternative Education school were put under the spotlight.
It was the first time rangatahi have been invited to speak at CPAG's annual picking apart of the Budget, attended by people working in Northland's Māori, health, housing, education and social aid sectors.
Opening for the rangatahi were speech competition winner and poet Skyla Anderson-Wynn, a senior student at Tikipunga high School, Sally Rudolph from Kaitaia College and Anahera Pickering.
Skyla and Sally performed powerful slam-poetry style speeches, both about self esteem and social pressure issues which teenagers suffer from. Anahera spoke of her experience living on the streets of Whangārei.
The Far North Alt-Ed students, aged between 13 and 16, bravely, shyly, self-consciously and at times haltingly introduced themselves and one by one related their personal, sometimes heartbreaking, stories.
In their whanau, community or personal experience sits just about every problem the "Wellbeing' Budget" aims to improve — poverty, abuse, addiction, violence, crime, prison, desertion, foster homes, poor housing, mental health, other health issue, low educational achievement and more.
Their teacher Craig Hobson told the audience about the students who go into Alternative Education programmes. There is a waiting list of 130 for the REAP and Kaitaia College-annexed Alt-Ed school alone.
Hobson outlined difficulties the students strived to overcome including home lives that sent many astray or from which they'd run away, "The kids are now parents - not of their own babies but of their own parents".
"When families can't care for their kids it doesn't mean they don't love them; it means their addictions have taken them to another realm. Yes, some of our kids also have addictions but we can help them with that."
The students spoke about their current situation as they introduced themselves. "This is my family," said one, indicating his fellow students and the teachers.
Another said, '"I am standing here now. I'm safe".
And one, "I see another side of life beside alcohol, drugs and abuse".
They spoke of aspiring to things that once seemed far from reach: to join the navy, work in forestry, be a motor mechanic, go farming, teach at kohanga, and one girl had wanted to be a pilot but now aimed to be a professional netballer.
The audience applauded the youngsters for their honesty and courage, but things went a little awry after CPAG's Ngaere Rae outlined the Wellbeing Budget in regards to its effect on Northland.
The meeting chairwoman Dr Terryann Clark invited the audience to ask the Alt-Ed students what they thought the budget should do for them.
At this hard ask, having been awkward speaking about themselves, some appeared distressed and others made stumbling attempts to answer before being rescued by their teacher.
Hobson respectfully reminded the education, health and welfare workers they may have unrealistic expectations, and they were putting the kids in a place of discomfort.
What the heck is a Wellbeing Budget?
Whangārei Child Poverty Action Group spokeswoman Ngaire Rae began sharing that group's analysis by asking, "What the heck does a Wellbeing Budget mean and how is it different to last year's budget?".
Rae pointed out that Budgets are moral documents outlining what the government chooses to invest in and what it proposes to cut, and they speak volumes about New Zealand as a nation. She described the 2019 version as being more about individuals than just measuring economic factors.
The Budget had five key pointers, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) analysis said: Taking mental health seriously; improving child wellbeing; supporting Māori and Pasifika aspirations, building a productive nation; transforming the economy.
It included targets for reducing child poverty, aiming to lift around 70,000 children in low income households out of poverty (before housing costs) by the year 2020/21, a reduction from 16 per cent of children down to 10 per cent. It included other stepped, targeted reductions up to 10 years out.
"But the Wellbeing Budget says that by this time next time it's still okay for us as a society and community to have 10 per cent of our children living in material hardship," Rae said.
CPAG's analysis holds that income support remains too low for needy families, indexing benefits to wages will only raise them $17 a week and the tax subsidy Working for Families does nothing for the poorest people.
"All this Budget does is tinker around the edges," Rae said.
The scrapping of school fees was already a move most local schools had undergone voluntarily, she said.
Talking about the Budget's nod to education needs, Rae had already told the students from the Far North REAP and Kaitaia College-annexed Alt-Ed programme, "You have not failed the school system, the system has failed you".
Northland would benefit from funding for Te Ara Oranga, the police and health board methamphetamine harm reduction programme. It was also hoped a chunk of $1.9 billion for mental health would come to the region, including from the $128.3m for Corrections Department programmes and addiction services, and from $197m to tackle homelessness through Housing First.
"But this budget does nothing to ensure more social housing in Northland," Rae said.
Northland also needed a bite of the funding allocated to fight rheumatic fever, support healthy lifestyle projects and support Māori health initiatives but there was no certainty it would, Rae said. Despite a large package of funding across eight Government portfolios to reduce family violence, there was no increased funding for Women's Refuge: "It's outrageous!"
After touching on other points of the Wellbeing Budget, Rae described it as "not transformative".
"I think it's awesome that we have some minor changes to fight poverty but let's eliminate child poverty ... it's not beyond our means.
"I would say, Jacinda, when are you going to use the political capital you have to really make a difference?
"When is she going to be brave enough to be transformative? This Budget has some good, but it's not good enough."