Fight over the middle ground

05:18, Sep 14 2014
Jeennifer, Patrick and Brianna Gregg
Jennifer and Patrick Gregg of West Auckland, with daughter Brianna.

Schoolteacher Jennifer Gregg struggles to support her family on a salary of $90,000, paying over-the-odds Auckland rents while her husband Patrick stays home to look after their seriously ill daughter. Their household income is above the New Zealand average but the couple's outgoings leave them with no savings for a deposit to buy their own home.

Now, Gregg has written an open letter to voters, calling on politicians to recognise how tough it is for working Kiwis - even those in professions like teaching that would once have been regarded as secure Government jobs.

Brian and Fiona Smith, on the other hand, have seen their joint income top $200,000, and they feel better off thanks to National's first-term tax cuts, cheaper broadband, internet TV, and the strong New Zealand dollar when they travel overseas.

Brian and Fiona Smith of Wellington
Brian and Fiona Smith of Wellington.

These are the faces of an election campaign that has become less about Dirty Politics and more about middle New Zealand's back pockets.

Both families are middle-to-high income - but increasingly, people in middle New Zealand feel they are on the edge - "on the cusp", as John Key would have it. For some, things are finally looking up after the double whammy of the Global Financial Crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes. For others, money is so tight that they're struggling to hold on.

Through the tough times, it seemed only reasonable that they should be willing to tighten their belts, tolerate slim or non-existent pay rises, and grit their teeth as prices inched inexorably upwards.

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The belt-tightening has not been evenly spread, though. According to Statistics NZ's Consumer Price Index online calculator, prices overall went up by a relatively modest 12.6 per cent between early 2008 and early 2014, but some specific costs rocketed way ahead of that.

House insurance jumped by a staggering 175 per cent and health insurance went up 57 per cent. Local body rates increased 35 per cent and home energy costs went up 27 per cent. Tertiary and other post-school education costs went up 32 per cent.

Other essential costs weren't quite as crazy, but have still outstripped the overall inflation rate: food has gone up around 16 per cent, the costs of home ownership has jumped 18 per cent, and rents have climbed 12 per cent.

On the bright side, the same period saw falls in the cost of communications (down 20 per cent); clothing (down 1 per cent) and household furnishings and appliances (down 1 per cent). For those who can afford to travel, the strong dollar has made foreign holidays relatively good value.

Of course, wages have climbed too over those six years, but like the price rises, they haven't been evenly spread.

According to the 2014 Household Incomes Report, the global financial crisis of 2007/08 hit low-to-middle-income households much harder than higher-income households, but when the economy bounced back and wages increased faster than inflation, the benefits were felt across the board. This meant that between 2009 and 2013, the net change in average income for the poorer half of New Zealand households was "close to zero", while there was a 5 per cent net gain for the richer half.

Unlike some election years, the political parties aren't exactly promising to shower the country with goodies. National is talking about modest tax cuts some time in 2017; Labour and the Greens are talking about increases to the minimum wage.

Latest polls show that a week out from the general election, we appear ready to grin and bear it a little longer. Their 52 per cent rating in today's Stuff.co.nz/Ipsos poll for the Sunday Star-Times, gives National pole position to form a new government.

That will depend on those swing voters tossing up between Labour and National, between NZ First and the Conservatives, or between Internet Mana and the Maori Party. Their decisions will first be signalled by the results in swing seats like Napier, Hutt South and Palmerston North, and by the party vote in suburbs like Onehunga and Mt Eden.

Jennifer and Patrick Gregg of West Auckland

The Gregg family pays $480 a week for a three-bedroom bungalow in Auckland's Glen Eden, money they wish was going towards a mortgage.

But with the tightening of LVRs, the rise of GST, the high cost of food, petrol and medical prescriptions, the family has no savings.

When they returned home in 2006 after meeting and marrying in Australia, the pair had high hopes of buying a home.

Eight years on the pair has no savings and their family has bounced around rental homes.

11-year-old Brianna was diagnosed with kidney disorder Nephrotic syndrome in 2009 and Patrick quit his painting job to care for her.

The family survives on Jennifer's income which hovers just under $90,000 per annum. It sounds a lot but she works hard for it: 55 to 60-hour weeks are the norm. The family pays bills, including Brianna's medical expenses with the help of disability benefits, it doesn't leave much for a 20 per cent deposit. "A lot of people say first-home owners are young but we're not really. We're happy to start in a modest home."

Rent, food and electricity are the family's biggest expenses and they say they pay 100 per cent more for the same items they bought in 2006.

The family has looked to move to other parts of the country where rent is cheaper but there is little work for Jennifer and they can't leave Brianna's doctors at Starship Hospital.

Brian and Fiona Smith of Wellington

Brian Smith, 46, co-owns a design company, and his wife Fiona works in telecoms. Their son Toby is six. They bought their house in the Porirua suburb of Whitby five years ago.

A flat economy has made it "tough" for Brian to grow his business, but the family is better off than six years ago, as promotions for Fiona have seen their joint income increase from around $200,000 to "$200,000-plus", and they benefited from National's first-term tax cuts.

US-born Brian takes the family home every two years, "so travel is one of our biggest savings goals".

For both, the main downers of the past years have been rising petrol prices, council rates, food prices, and housing costs.

Living in "culturally diverse" Porirua City, Smith is keenly aware not everyone is as comfortable as his family. "We're quite well off, but not celebrity rich. I feel very lucky to have my family and my little boy and to be in a position to take care of him."

That doesn't mean money is no object. "We use supermarket fuel vouchers. We shop at the Warehouse. The day it costs $100 to fill the tank, you notice it. When cheese went crazy I noticed it: $12 for a block of cheese!"

Click here to see our latest poll graphics.

Sunday Star Times