Paul Barber is a Policy Advisor with the NZ Council of Christian Social Services (nzccss.org.nz) which is the national network of the social services of the Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and The Salvation Army churches. NZCCSS is one of the 37 groups in the Equality Network (equalitynetwork.org.nz) sharing a vision for a more equal country for everyone.
Inequality and poverty, along with housing, are the top areas of concern for New Zealanders right now (see Roy Morgan poll http://nzccss.org.nz/news/2017/04/election-issues-2017-housing-inequality/ ). If churches remain silent on this issue, if we do not talk about these issues in our communities, then the church is simply declaring itself uninterested in the central problems in our community.
The “Great Divergence” (Max Rashbrooke http://www.inequality.org.nz/understand/) in incomes and wealth has happened in this generation as a result of political decisions and policies implemented by governments elected by us.
Governments over the past 30 years have made decisions to lower taxes for the highest income earners, reduce benefit levels for the lowest income earners, and wages have been kept low through taking away laws that supported workers to organise into unions to bargain for higher wages.
The result of those decisions is high income earners have doubled their incomes while the lowest incomes have barely risen. Wages for the lower income earners have risen more slowly than those of their managers and business owners.
Those most affected are the hundreds of thousands of children growing up in households where incomes are too low. Many of those households have people in paid work but wages are too low to lift people out of poverty. But there are also nearly 200,000 children living in households where no-one is in paid employment and they are in the great hardship. Children are missing out on good housing, growing up in poor health and struggling to get the education they need to help them get on in life.
Inequality can therefore be reduced by similar political decisions by politicians we vote for. Fair incomes are first and foremost a social and political decision, the economics must work to serve and support social and political goals.
It is a question of priorities, values and of people.
In 2016 the gathered representatives of the Presbyterian Church agreed to the We Say yes! Statement. http://www.presbyterian.org.nz/speaking-out/what-we-believe/we-say-yes-statement
“Say yes to closing the gap between the rich and the poor.
We say no to the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer.
Therefore we seek to give privilege to the voice of the poor in our communities.”
In recent weeks, we have seen how hard it is to speak out about the struggle to get by in our welfare system (#IamMetiria https://e-tangata.co.nz/news/anon-mymumwasmetiria). Because the system is set up to shut you out and shut you up, to make you voiceless.
In every community there will be stories like the courageous Debbie (http://www.equalitynetwork.org.nz/electionstatement2017/resourcesstories/debbies-story/) or Maddy, Mareta, and Nathan who have shared their stories of life on a benefit. Everyday people who for various reasons end up needing long-term income support through our welfare system.
The welfare system that has been created over the past 30 years fails people not because it is difficult to help them but because it chooses to make it tough. Poor people are supposed to live desperate lives, so desperate that you will accept any kind of job, any kind of alternative other than “dependence on the State”.
Our votes therefore become part of the choice too – do you choose to support this approach to welfare or do you choose to ask for policies that will really lift incomes for the people who do not have enough to allow them and their families to be part of normal life in this country?
The Equality Network (http://www.equalitynetwork.org.nz/electionstatement2017/ ) is a grouping of 37 organisations that share concern about high inequality in this country and want to work together to speak out and help make this country more equal. The Network has released an Election Statement (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5088rssxPGyMU5ORTZ6emxTdkU/view) that shares a vision for a more equal country with three things that can be done immediately to help make our country more equal:
- Lift incomes for those on lowest incomes through fairer income support and a living wage
- Government funded housing building programme and better housing standards
- Fairer taxes with a wealth tax on those with high wealth and higher tax rates for the highest incomes
There are other things we need to do to our race relations, education, health, democracy, workers’ rights and broadcasting but right now these three things are the most powerful and direct things can be done tomorrow.
Fairer incomes for those who are missing out the most – people who are not in paid employment – who are sick, disabled, caring for children or family members should be a top priority for our church communities.
There are some simple things that can be done right now to lift low incomes. Firstly, pay all children a child tax credit, don’t limit it only to families that have paid employment. Secondly, lift core benefit rates further. The small increase in 2016 was good but the increases planned for next April are not enough. Thirdly, when people manage to earn income on top of their benefit, don’t reduce the benefit so quickly. Many people loose almost all the extra income earned through reduced benefit payments.
As a nation we can choose to afford whatever we value the most – how about we put our children and people in most hardship first on that list.
Find out more about election policies and compare what the parties are doing on the following links:
- Equality Network http://www.equalitynetwork.org.nz/ More videos and stories about inequality (http://www.equalitynetwork.org.nz/electionstatement2017/resourcesstories/
- Policy at the Spinoff http://policy.thespinoff.co.nz/
- Learn more about poverty and taking action from the Justice in Action booklet http://www.presbyterian.org.nz/for-ministers/prescare/justice-action
- Follow NZCCSS releases on inequality, poverty and housing http://nzccss.org.nz/news/