Christmas time comes with many certainties in New Zealand. There won’t be any snow. Every mall becomes home to a Santa Claus. There will be a variety of fake and real Christmas trees in workplaces and homes, decorated with lights that take too long to untangle and tinsel that has seen better days. Now another certainty at this time every year is that more and more people are reliant on charitable aid and foodbanks in order to make ends meet.
Most families experience tough financial struggles during the festive season. However, these decisions range in intensity. Some families make choices about how many presents they can give, or where to go on holiday. Others are forced to choose whether there will be any Christmas lunch at all.
Every December we are reminded in the media of the burgeoning number of people who line up at a foodbank for extra help over Christmas, and the charities that work hard to feed those in need yet lack the resources to provide for everyone. This grants us a glimpse at the true level of poverty and inequality in New Zealand.
This year the struggles are likely to be worse due to the additional supplies already generously provided to quake-stricken families in Kaikoura and surrounding regions. Last year we saw headlines like ‘Unprecedented demand at City Mission’ and ‘Rise in families seeking help for Christmas stress’. This year is set to continue along this line, with the Salvation Army predicting a 5.6% increase in demand from last year.
Yet this brief annual window excludes the elephant in the room: that this poverty is a consequence of our welfare system failing to provide the support it was intended to.
Social security, as defined and established in New Zealand in 1938 by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, is about upholding the wellbeing and financial security of all citizens, irrespective of circumstances. The state took up the responsibility of protecting its citizens, accepting accountability and duty to its people, and actioning a collective conscience.
However, this mindset has changed, both politically and publically. Protections that were once seen as a right for citizens have been removed or weakened by the state. In the labour market, jobs are increasingly insecure, with policies like the 90-day trial, a rise of casual employment reducing protection and stability for workers. At the same time our social security system is becoming increasingly exclusionary and difficult to access, with high levels of stigma, extensive administrative hurdles, more conditions and obligations, and financial support at a level that does not meet every day needs.
Without the state absorbing economic shocks, the burden falls to individuals and families. O’Brien (2013) describes this as the “individualization of poverty”. The wider acceptance of the financial difficulties that come as a consequence of this exposure to market fluctuations is fostered through the predominance of individualism in modern western societies. The collective conscience that spurned the provision of a welfare state, a minimum wage, public health care, and social housing has been replaced by a business mentality, with the Government focused primarily on reducing short-term fiscal spending.
Rather than assisting New Zealanders out of hardship, our welfare system is oriented around minimising spending. This lack of financial assistance makes it more difficult for people, particularly children who have grown up in such constrained and stressful environments, to further their own wellbeing and their role in society. It seems in New Zealand, the state is now failing to prevent – and arguably even facilitating – the existence of poverty.
The level of financial hardship created by the lack of state services and support is creating considerable pressures on foodbanks and other charitable NGOs. As Wynd (2005) argued in the Child Poverty Action Group report on foodbanks in New Zealand, a welfare system should make foodbanks and other such non-governmental organisations (NGOs) superfluous. However, rather than only a matter of emergency, these NGOs are now a permanent fixture in the welfare landscape, reflecting an ongoing level of poverty that is not being resolved by our welfare system or our labour market.
The void left by the state is filled not only by NGOs and charities, but other sources of financial assistance. One cause for concern that has arisen in this vacuum is truck shops. These are retail shops that operate out of trucks and frequent low-socioeconomic areas. They offer goods at overpriced rates and lines of credit for those who may not usually qualify for them, with high interest rates. These trucks exploit the poverty and geographic isolation that already exists to further indebt and burden families. For parents who want their children to have presents and lunch to look forward to on Christmas, these trucks appear to offer hope in the form of ease of access to credit and no immediate upfront costs.
Despite a wider loss of community support, we are also seeing an increased reliance on personal networks for financial support. The needs left unfulfilled by the state are spilling over into private spaces. In particular, families and close friends are relied upon as a social and economic safety net for individuals. This adds significant financial strain and tensions, especially around Christmas time when expenses are rife.
This time of year we see the manifestations of poverty in New Zealand. We see the appeals from NGOs, we hear the increased numbers in need of food parcels, and we are told of the many hours that people wait outside foodbanks to have a Christmas lunch. What we don’t see is the real cause of deprivation. Our Government is ignoring its responsibility to uphold the rights of citizens and to provide a safety net for those facing hardship. Instead, our welfare system and labour market are leaving many in financial strife and poverty.
I encourage you to give generously this year so we can offer some solace, as fellow citizens, to those who do not have the resources we do. But we must also remember to consider and address the causes, not just the symptoms. We have unprecedented levels of child poverty and inequality in New Zealand, a society that has enough resources to provide for everyone.
You can support your local foodbanks and homeless shelters, or if you want to make a donation online, some links are available below: