Church agencies call for action on income, housing

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Catholic agencies have called on the Government to address income and housing issues that impact the poorest people in New Zealand society.

The Poverty Committee of Wellington archdiocese’s Commission for Ecology, Justice and Peace, Auckland diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand and Wellington-based youth development agency Challenge 2000 were among groups that made submissions to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Select Committee on the Government’s Budget Policy Statement 2000.

All these agencies expressed broad support for the statement’s goals to ensure a just transition to a low-emissions economy, reduce child poverty and improve child well-being, lift Māori and Pasifika incomes and opportunities, and improve physical and mental well-being.

But all of the agencies called for action to better provide for those on income support and those on low incomes in this country.

The Wellington archdiocese committee welcomed steps taken to adjust the accommodation supplement and Working for Families, as well as the introduction of the Best Start tax credit, the pilot food in schools programme and the Winter Energy payment.

But it expressed concern that “Budget 2020 does not yet address the most significant recommendations of the Government’s own Welfare Expert Advisory Group”.

The Wellington committee submission pointed to the engagement with people on income support by Church personnel at Benefit Impact events in the archdiocese. It was evident that many people on income support struggle with the complexity of the welfare system, with its many different tiers and avenues of support.

The submission stated that the “entrenched disadvantage faced by many of New Zealand’s poorest citizens needs to be resolved through systemic change of the welfare system, rather than through targeted or one-off programmes”.

“The fundamental issue is that benefit rates are simply too low to cover basic living expenses, leaving beneficiaries to seek tightly targeted supplementary assistance.

“Significant amounts of time and effort are spent administering second and third tier assistance at the margins, which is not only frustrating and difficult for vulnerable New Zealanders, but is an inefficient use of public and community resources.”

The submission called for the implementation of the Welfare Advisory Group’s recommendation 19, whereby main benefits should cover a larger proportion of people’s living costs than they do currently (reducing reliance on other assistance) and that the income support system proactively supports people to access their full and correct entitlements and promotes these entitlements to the broader population.

“Until these matters are addressed, significant amounts of public and community time will continue to be tied up in addressing entitlements at the margins,” the Wellington committee stated.

Challenge 2000 made similar points, stating that its submission was based on “our experience of working with some of the most disadvantaged, poorest citizens in our country”.

It referred to people on income support as “the poorest, most disadvantaged and marginalised in our community”.

Challenge 2000 stated that The Budget Policy Statement 2020 does not sufficiently prioritise the needs of such people.

“There are two basic problems,” the submission stated. “One of the problems is that basic benefit rates are too low to cover basic living expenses. The other is that the income support system is not user-friendly. This means that people on benefits struggle, and do not experience the income support system as one that treats them with dignity.”

“Specifically we recommend that the priority for this Budget should be to ensure it implements the recommendations in the Welfare Advisory Group report, especially those that focus on reforming the income support system and those that provide people with low incomes with significantly more than they currently receive.”

The Auckland Justice and Peace commission’s submission called for action to improve “the well-being of all families by enabling them to have a decent income to support themselves”.

This is achieved by increasing the base benefit for families in line with accumulated inflation; continuing to increase the minimum wage; committing to negotiate with Government contractors to ensure their employees are paid the Living Wage; establishing a Social Welfare Commission to ensure all families can access the assistance they are entitled to in times of need.

The Auckland commission submission continued: “It is time to redress the injustice of the 1991 slashing of base rates of Social Welfare payments to some of our most vulnerable families that has led to decades of intergeneration[al] poverty as identified by the Social Welfare Expert Advisory Report.

“Implementing recommendation 20 of this report would enable so many families to support themselves with dignity and start New Zealand on the road to reverse the march of child poverty that is so unnecessarily blighting so many lives.”

(Recommendation 20 called for increasing main benefits by between 12 per cent and 47 per cent as well as increasing the abatement thresholds for Jobseeker Support to $150 a week, and for Sole Parent Support and Supported Living Payment to $150 a week and $250 a week, respectively.)

The Caritas submission stated that “overcoming poverty demands a holistic approach which provides higher incomes that cover New Zealand’s high cost of living; affordable housing; and a ‘joined-up’ approach to education, training and employment which fosters movement towards lifelong education, participation and meaningful work”.

The submission pointed to 2017 research by the Child Poverty Monitor that found that 290,000 New Zealand children — around 27 per cent of kids — were living in income poverty.

It also called for increases to the minimum wage and cracking down on predatory lending.

Housing

Auckland’s Justice and Peace Commission urged the Government to reduce child poverty and increase child well-being by including in the 2020 Budget sufficient funds, firstly to build new public housing for the 14,000 families now on the waiting list, and secondly to investigate and implement the use of Crown-leased land and shared equity and rent-to-buy schemes so as to make private housing more affordable to purchase.

“We welcome the Government’s intention to ensure every family has a warm home, good health care, education opportunity and an adequate family income and it is important that these intentions be explicitly reflected in the Government’s budget priorities,” the submission stated.

“So it is disappointing that these do not explicitly mention housing or the key priority of the Social Welfare Expert Advisory Group to lift basic benefit levels.

“If these major issues of our time are not urgently addressed it is hard to see how the 2020 Budget could be seen as authentically protecting and supporting the poorest and most vulnerable in society so they are able to genuinely participate in building a decent society for all.”

Caritas stated it particularly supported expanding Housing First to tackle homelessness, including delivering additional public and transitional housing.

“We want to see urgent action to see a substantial increase in the number of houses being constructed. This will require not only increased funding, faster and less arduous consenting processes and increased availability of qualified builders, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Trade training and long-term planned investment to deliver a much larger number of qualified and experienced builders will be essential if the Government is to have any hope of fulfilling its promises on housing,” the Caritas submission stated.

Some of the other topics discussed in one or more of the Catholic agency submissions were transitioning to a net zero-carbon emission economy by 2050, public transport, infrastructure investment, health, lifting Māori and Pasifika incomes, skills and opportunities and costs of GP visits.

The submissions were made before publicity on the Government move to index benefits to the average wage, rather than the inflation rate. They were also before the latest child poverty statistics were released, showing little change in recent years.

Michael Otto

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