Jacinda Ardern and the working poor

by Don Franks

In his June 8th piece “Jacinda Ardern looks unbeatable” journalist Martin van Beynen appeared unbeatable himself – at fawning praise.

This week I was reading about John F. Kennedy, the American president assassinated in 1963, and saw this memo written by his aide, Arthur Schlesinger Jr: ‘The character and the repute of President Kennedy constitute one of our greatest national resources. Nothing should be done to jeopardise this invaluable asset. When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials.’ It strikes me that Ardern actually has more of what JFK had and has done a lot of other things right.

. . . for most New Zealanders who care about fairness and decency, Ardern is as good a patron saint as it gets. She represents a world view that increasingly seems to have the monopoly on caring. . . Ardern, with her emphasis on kindness and looking after the least of us, demonstrates the values that more overtly religious people should pride themselves.

Crawling flattery infects much New Zealand journalism today. It paints a world view that’s grotesquely unreal.

To see how Labour’s prime minister is really “looking after the least of us”, ask those struggling to help the working poor, like Budgeting and Family Support Services. Their Mangere office head, Darryl Evans, reports:

We opened our doors a little over 23 years ago out of the growing need of the community at that time., the reality is some 23 years later, we continue to work with families who face the very same issues; although rising rents are now pushing people out of their homes.

These past few years, many New Zealanders have experienced uncertainty in terms of whether they get to keep their jobs due to the high number of redundancies or due to the rising cost of living or financial stresses that life brings. Many have had to seek social welfare or benefit support for the first time in their lives.

Families and individuals are coming into services such as ours to seek our support with a range of complex issues. Many believe the future to be bleak, hundreds if not thousands; have faced homelessness, some face loss of employment but overwhelmingly most feel they no longer have a familiar and secure future; which is distressing for so many.

It is often working families who earn minimum wage who are first at our door seeking our help. The reality is that $17.70 an hour before tax simply is not enough to sustain a family here in Auckland or in many other parts of our country.

Over the past few years the number of third-tier moneylenders has proliferated, especially those known as ‘payday lenders’. They quite literally ‘prey’ on those who have no other way of finding money to live – pay the rent, buy food or pay the power bill etc.

The poorest 10 per cent of New Zealanders are all in net debt, so they owe far more than they actually own. It’s a pretty crushing weight around a lot of people’s necks – their situation has generally been getting worse over the past couple of decades.

More than ever we see low income families facing six-monthly rental increases, often for mouldy, damp hovels with windows that don’t close properly – and many are paying between $450-$650 a week for the pleasure.

Darryl Evans concluded:

We’ve also noticed an increase in the numbers of ‘working poor’, the growing group of second-class citizens who struggle to get a decent job, a decent wage or a decent life. There is now one person for every eight people in the total workforce who cannot get any or enough work.

Labour’s  recent budget was a chance for the patron saint to show fairness and decency. In terms of welfare, housing, education and health care, the chance was not taken.

The move to index unemployment benefit increases to the average wage is expected to lift weekly welfare payments by $17 by the year 2023. An increase, four years away, of less than an hour’s minimum wage per week. The government’s own Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommended increasing poverty-level benefits by 47 percent. A recommendation the government rejected.

Alongside workers in overpriced, substandard accommodation are at least 40,000 homeless people. Yet the government’s budget provides funding for just over 1,000 new emergency housing places.

The government’s main housing focus has been the Kiwibuild scheme. This helps private developers build houses to be sold for profit.  Labour promised 100,000 houses over 10 years as “affordable housing”.  To date just 79 have been built, costing $500,000 or more each. A price far  beyond the reach of low-paid workers.

Labour’s budget showed more  “fairness” to the Defence Force, increasing its allocation by 23 percent, up from $4.11 billion last year to $5.06 billion in 2019-2020. By contrast the Ministry of Education got $614 million more.

As if in anticipation of inadequate education allocation 52,000 teachers struck the day before the budget was announced. They demanded pay increases of 15 to 16 percent,  smaller class sizes and more resources. In the health sector this year, 3,000 junior doctors carried out 5 strikes. Midwives, ambulance-paramedic and anaesthetic technicians also took industrial action. This was preceded last year by a nation-wide strike of 30,000 nurses and healthcare assistants demanding improved wages and staff-to-patient ratios.

At the time of writing this, the government refuses to concede any further increase to teachers’ pay. The teachers’ battle will be difficult indeed and may include problems with top union leadership as well as with the employer. Still, the better organised workers of New Zealand, like those in education and health care, at least have some chance to improve their lot by united industrial action. The mass of impoverished New Zealand workers are un-unionised, in many cases, entirely on their own. No wonder they feel they have no future.

No patron saint will deliver them; they are rejected by the whole of the established order. An increasing mass of low-paid and unemployed  workers has been abandoned by all  parliamentary parties and a Labour-fixated top union leadership. “The least of us” can only hope to find salvation in the future, from radical and unlawful action of their own devising.

2 comments

  1. Wages are not met.beneficiaries need to be up to the min wage.not fair ,you work hard all your life and when you on the benefit they hazzle you. What happen to wipe out sec tax.why stop winter payment ,its hot in summer so you need aircond.

  2. One of the most ridiculous excuses given by a Labour MP as to why benefits couldn’t just be increased straight away was that it is technically complicated. But it would actually be much less complicated to simply make the ‘winter payment’ a permanent increase. It’s more ‘complicated’ to add it and then stop it each year! They are such liars.

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