The dignity of a liveable wage

There have been two stories that caught my attention this week. The reason they caught my attention is because they seem to tell us totally contradictory stories about what is happening in New Zealand today.

The first was a story at the beginning of the week that some food banks in parts of New Zealand are reporting higher than usual demand.

I know there's always been a rush on around Christmas time for food banks. The incredible volunteers who run these outfits do an amazing job getting extra provisions in for the period. And who doesn't want to see those in our neighbourhoods who struggle getting a nourishing meal at Christmas time, especially if there are children in the household?

This story makes me concerned about the fact that many people are still finding it difficult to get work, which also explains why our unemployment numbers have barely moved in spite of claims of economic improvement.

But it's also obvious that even working people with jobs are finding it difficult to make ends meet. I wouldn't be surprised if a good proportion of those turning up to food banks this Christmas are folks on the minimum wage or near to it who cannot afford the extras, like presents for the kids and a bit of Christmas cheer on top.

Just as I was thinking about this the second story - and there was more than one version of it - appeared about how well the economy is doing. Or more to the point, how well it is expected to do.

Several surveys as well as the Government's end-of-year financial statement seemed to be saying things are going gangbusters. Economic growth of nearly 4 per cent is expected, two thirds of businesses are thinking about employing more staff and everyone is apparently expecting a great year next year.

Even yesterday's front page story in the Daily News cheered on local retailers for expecting a bumper year in Christmas sales. How much is being spent on credit wasn't stated.

Now, I'm the first to be deeply cynical about business surveys. My experience with them is that as soon as businesses start telling the world that it's all going to be alright, then it's time to be concerned. I've never under-estimated the ability of the business community for collective self delusion.

The question's obvious. If it's all so good, why are more people lining up at food banks? Why, if things are so buoyant, do people on the minimum wage need the sort of support from a food bank to supplement their meagre income?

The Christmas spirit is not just one of giving. It is that, and it is a time to be generous. But the season of goodwill should not be one of temporary generosity.

I'm not particularly religious, but the Christmas season has its origins in a Christian celebration of a birth, of new life. In the gospels, Christ's birth is a symbol of hope.

It's more than that. It's the mark of a new beginning. Christ himself is a symbol of values of generosity, forgiveness and of the importance of humanity to each other.

I am sure we can find it within ourselves to make a contribution to various worthy causes at this time of year, not the least of which is the food banks around the region. None of us wants the poorest among us to be denied happiness at Christmas. We naturally wish all our fellow citizens peace and goodwill at this time.

But perhaps we might want to wish for something else.

What if we wished for hideous and degrading economic disparity to be a thing of the past? What would that look like? What if we yearned for a system that meant that those who could work got work? And those who worked got decent pay, a living wage at the very least, for their work?

Imagine the sense of dignity that would be restored to those who presently suffer the indignity of not being able to afford special treats for their kids at Christmas.

The real message of Christmas is that it's a time to think less of ourselves and more about others. My point is this should not just be a Christmas activity. A society genuinely built on peace and goodwill to all others is thinking about fairness and security all year round.

We don't have to want generosity to the point of largesse and gluttony. But we should want people who do a good day's work, whatever that work is, to be able to live in dignity and to look their family in the eye with pride knowing they can be provided for with a degree of comfort.

That is my Christmas wish. A peaceful society is a fair society.

Merry Christmas to all readers.

Taranaki Daily News