Benefits, housing top issues

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Mixed...Some positives but still a lot of negatives and lack of progress is the overall summation of the Salvation Army's state of nation report outlined by Paul Barker (above). PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

To lift people out of hardship and poverty, welfare benefits need to rise and more homes have to be built that people can afford, a Salvation Army social policy analyst says.

Paul Barker, who works in the Salvation Army’s social and parliamentary unit in Wellington, visited Timaru last week to give a summary of the army’s state of nation report.

Asked what the top priorities the Government should introduce in the next 12 months were, Mr Barker replied: “An increase in welfare benefits; that would be a sign of progress, and a commitment to building houses people can afford.”

Mr Barker said the impact of the Government’s Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy released in August last year would not become fully noticeable until after this year’s general election.

“Later this month Statistics New Zealand will include data but we won’t know yet. I’d expect to see some progress but how much is hard to say.”

He said targets had been set on child poverty, which meant the Government would be held to account on how things had progressed or not.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made relieving child poverty a key part of her 2017 election campaign.

Statistics showed about 250,000 children lived in households with very low incomes, under 50% of the median. A total of 180,000 children were living in deep poverty, often in welfare-dependent families.

Mr Barker said welfare reforms had not progressed and unless there was a major lift in benefits, there was no prospect of things improving; instead, they would get worse.

Since the Coalition Government came into power, spending on hardship grants from December 2017 to December 2019 had doubled from about $80million to more than $160million.

Mr Barker said this indicated incomes were inadequate.

On a positive note, the Department of Social Development appeared to be responding.

Food parcels handed out by the Salvation Army had dropped by about 800 in the past 12 months, just below 60,000, but other agencies providing food parcels could account for this, Mr Barker said.

Suicide prevention was another Ardern policy but the Salvation Army report said since 2018 there had been a spike. There was a nearly 50% increase among 15 to 19-year-olds, mainly males.

“Youth suicide rates are near record levels this year, which is a clear signal of problems,” the report stated.

Statistics revealed 75,000 young people aged 15 to 24 were not in education, training or employment.

Mr Barker said unemployment had dropped to the lowest level in more than a decade, 110,000 at December 2019, but there were thousands of people who would take a job if they could get one.