'People are hurting and we need to take action' – Fairer Future reveals seven-point plan to lift families out of poverty

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As bureaucrats dance around solutions that could create lasting change for low-income families, tamariki and whānau living in poverty are suffering, advocates say.

Fairer Future, an anti-poverty advocacy group supported by 33 organisations across Aotearoa, released its seven steps for a fairer future plan on Monday ahead of Budget 2022 in a bid to create lasting change for families living in the red.

Based on the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s (WEAG) 2019 Whakamana Tāngata report findings and recommendations, Fairer Future’s plan set out seven policy changes for the Ministry of Social Development.

This included increasing benefits to standard of living incomes, raising the minimum wage to the living wage, boosting disability allowances, changing relationship rules for beneficiaries, removing sanctions in the system, wiping debt owed to the ministry, and improving access to supplementary assistance.

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Dr Huhana Hickey (Ngāti Tāhinga, Whakatōhea), who was a member of the WEAG and supports Fairer Future’s kaupapa, said she has written to the prime minister and the minister of social development every month since the report’s release, urging them to increase support for those engaged in the welfare system, but it’s not them she needs to get over the line.

“It is not them that are stopping it, it is their policy analysts. It’s the ones in Government who have got seven houses and large portfolios who are actively stopping the implementation of WEAG.”

Assistant Māori Children's Commissioner Glenis Philip-Barbara says benefits must increase to keep up with the cost of living.
Monique Ford/Stuff
Assistant Māori Children's Commissioner Glenis Philip-Barbara says benefits must increase to keep up with the cost of living.

Assistant Children’s Commissioner Māori Glenis Philip-Barbara (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Uepōhatu) said there were people in power who didn’t understand the severity of the poverty crisis that tamariki and their whānau were facing, because they see figures as data points rather than people struggling to get by.

“It’s very easy in this climate to be insulated to the hardships being experienced in our communities, but everybody sitting in this particular hui today is connected to whānau and community who we know are doing it tough.

“It’s really important that as New Zealanders this gap doesn’t continue to grow between us and create this mythology that we’re all fine. People are hurting and we need to take action.”

While the suffering of whānau was unacceptable, Philip-Barbara said, the social and personal cost of poverty for tamariki stretched further.

“Children in this country are bearing an unfair burden of poverty right now, and not only are they and their whānau suffering today, we’re creating a future for them that they can’t imagine.”

Children are missing out because benefits are not keeping up with inflation, assistant Children’s Commissioner Māori Philip-Barbara says.
Charlotte Curd/Stuff
Children are missing out because benefits are not keeping up with inflation, assistant Children’s Commissioner Māori Philip-Barbara says.

Tamariki who are growing up without the essentials and without stability were being set up to expect a future without hope, where their needs won’t be met, Philip-Barbara said.

“We’re already seeing that in our mental health statistics, were seeing whānau living with toxic stress, we’re seeing children being raised in motels and cars, this is not acceptable for any New Zealander in any corner of this country, and so we need to take actions now.”

While there was a need to address these issues across the field, the issues of inequity seen in the welfare system was also a concern.

Across Aotearoa, 9% of Pākehā children and their families were living in poverty. For Māori and Pasifika children, this figure was more than double at 20% and 25% respectively, Phillip-Barbara said.

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“The very presence of inequity is evidence of the long tail of colonisation,” Philip-Barbara said.

“We are 18 years away from 200 years since Te Tiriti was signed, we have an opportunity now to lift our whānau out of poverty.”

Disabled Persons Assembly NZ president Nathan Bond said this inequity was also seen in the distribution of disability allowances.

The maximum amount that a person can access weekly is $70.40, Bond said, but the median average for those receiving this is far below.

Pāhekā received the highest average weekly payments of $13.65, followed by Māori at $9.70 per week, and Pasifika with $6.50.

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This doesn’t even begin to cover the wide-ranging costs of supporting weekly expenses many recipients require, Bond said.

“And only a fraction of those costs are actually considered as expenses that are covered by the disability allowance.

“The reality is that we living in a world that is inaccessible and disabling, and because of that there are significant extra costs for disabled people just to be able to live ordinary lives.

“Setting a flat minimum rate would go a long way to closing the gap between those ethnic groups and would significantly impact disabled people.”