Every day the news just get gets worse. Reports are coming out thick and fast about families at the end of their tether with no food and needing urgent help in this lockdown.
Variety is tugging at the heartstrings with tales of unbelievable deprivation. Kidscan are running an urgent drive to raise money for food parcels. Social media is full of it. But how exhausting and inefficient it is to feed low-income families this way.
If you are in that age bracket when your kids worry about you and do your shopping in lockdown, you will know how hard it is to get exactly what you want when someone else chooses. You get bananas that are too ripe or too big for example. This might be a trivial inconvenience for us but desperate families have to take whatever the generic food parcel contains, whether or not culturally or nutritionally inappropriate.
Private charity, not collective responsibility rules in New Zealand. And so, we devolve to the American welfare model. The time and energy involved obtaining, packing parcels, keeping records and delivering during lockdown is eye watering. Add that to the inefficiency and inadequacy of food grants from WINZ (Work and Income) with growing stories of how difficult they are to access. But worse still is the entrenchment of poverty, ensnaring of growing debt and loss of dignity.
One thing markets do well is to enable the efficient distribution of food – providing of course people have the money. If we just gave families all the money private charities spend on advertising to cajole donations, the tax rebates on these, and the direct government grants to foodbanks it would be so much better.
Julie Chapman the CEO of KidsCan was asked how this country got to this crisis when we have enough food to feed everyone. She correctly identified that there is a group that have been deliberately left behind.
The already highly disadvantaged group, including far too many children in their formative years, is growing larger. How were they left behind?
Housing is the topic for another blog but here I want to focus on Working for Families, a major redistributive programme. It is the way income gets specifically to meet the costs of children in low-income families.
Sadly this programme was never designed for recessions let alone lockdowns and there are many features of it that make it far less effective than it should be.
The full package for those on incomes under $42,700 is $185 a week for one child, $276 for two and $89 extra for each additional child. Below $42,700, Working for Families should be a secure cushion that helps protects all children but that is often not the reality.
One fatal flaw is that a significant part of Working or Families is tied to the performance of paid work. This means when people lose work as they are doing in this current situation their children can also lose support of at least $72.50 a week. That money would be greatly helpful for families in our midst who can’t feed their kids right now.
AAAP Advocate Agnes Magele know this all too well when her job disappeared, and she needed to access a benefit. She lost $72.50 a week of Working for Families out of an already impossibly tight budget and now with lockdown has to feed teenagers at home.
We know that government is reviewing Working for Families, but the years roll by. They should have fixed it a long time ago. We can learn from Australia on this one. Australian family tax benefits do not reduce when families have to access benefits. They are adjusted each year for inflation – ours have not changed since 2018 while prices have increased more for beneficiaries than others. Australian Family Tax Benefits are much more generous and inclusive. For families in work, they reduce much more slowly from a higher income level ($A 56,370) that is adjusted upwards every year.
We can’t wait for the outcome of the government’s secret review of WFF. This crisis demands that we don’t further marginalise and neglect the group that was already far too far behind.