Yesterday’s coverage of a Porirua family that can only afford biscuits was a lovely well-meaning interview; with a family who work extraordinarily hard but struggle to cover their costs. It was sad and depressing to hear. However, around half of New Zealanders believe those on low incomes are struggling simply because they are not making good decisions or even worse are ‘stupid’. Like much of the media coverage on poverty, it did nothing to challenge such views because it failed to give the whole complex story.
The problem is this: living on a low income in New Zealand and achieving a good quality of life – one that means your kids have an equal shot at success – is a very complex business.
It is complex because the support systems like benefits and Working for Families (WFF) are complex; they have many restrictions, exclusions and limitations. For instance if you work over 20 hours on a really low wage and you get the Minimum Family Tax Credit (MFTC) top up, (to ensure your family has a total income of $23,764 net per year) then those additional hours are actually worth nothing at all. How does this work? Well, as you increase your income the MFTC payments reduce $ for $. However, you have to work in order to qualify for this particular tax credit. You need a pretty big stick to force people to do a low paid job for which they effectively get paid nothing to do. One wonders what kind of message that actually sends to very low income earners?
In another example of the complexity of the system, if your work falls below 20 hours a week you will no longer get the MFTC, in addition you won’t get the In Work Tax Credit (IWTC) for your children. The IWTC is a payment of $72.50 that everyone who qualifies for WFF gets as long as they work 20 hours per week as a sole parent or 30 hours combined as two parents. Without the MFTC or the IWTC you will probably have to go on a benefit (even though you may still be working, just not the minimum required hours). While you are on the benefit (and possibly still working for 10 or 15 hours a week) you still can’t get the IWTC for your children – that is not much ‘incentive’ to work.
The benefit system is also difficult to navigate; it may get cut by 50% if you fail to attend job training because you could not afford petrol in your car for instance. When that car breaks down a loan from WINZ (or payday loan sharks) to fix it becomes a debt that, without enough money in reserve to even pay to get your car going, is unlikely you will be able to pay off.
The latest data from Statistics New Zealand show us that 40% of households in New Zealand hold very little wealth (like none), and the bottom 20% owe more than they own. So they have limited cash or other assets to draw upon during unexpected events such as job loss, sickness, or moving house. And these are things that happen more frequently when you live on a low income, have low skilled work, and become the flotsam and jettison of the economic tides.
Housing support is tricky too; the accommodation supplement has not been adjusted for rent increases for many years so it does not cover much of what private rentals now cost (the cost of accommodation everywhere has been skyrocketing for some years now). Around half of low-income families are in a private rental and half of those pay 50-60% of their income for that accommodation.
We note all of this simply to show that making life work on a low income is more than about simply arranging the money that comes in into neat packets of payments for living. The money that comes in is often variable, difficult to predict, sometimes vanishes altogether, and is insufficient when life goes a bit pear shaped. With all this stress – often a lifetime of it – at times it becomes pretty difficult to make optimal decisions (even if you did have any ‘real choices’).
Communicating the complexity of the issues of low incomes and low wealth to the public is important to help them understand better the hard choices families have to make. The public is not silly; they can understand and grapple with multiple complex ideas. We should stop with the over simplistic rhetoric and talk instead about the messy business of living. Then we can have sensible conversations about how to make the lives of families on low incomes with limited opportunities better, based on facts.
So here are 10 ways the media (and all of us) can communicate on the issue of low-income, low wealth families more effectively
- Look to find out and explain the complexities of the support systems. For example, explain how the red tape of Working for families affects a family’s everyday decisions about work and the maze they need to navigate with casual work and low wages. Use specific examples.
- Describe the cost and quality of accommodation, the rate at which costs have risen and how much the accommodation supplement does and does not cover for a family.
- Talk about the role of debt- not just payday loan sharks but WINZ debt too. How debt spirals when you have no wealth to draw upon.
- Acknowledge that poor decision-making happens, but give it context; the role of stress on decision-making and on brain development is really important for the public to understand. There is a long-term intergenerational physical impact of living in deprivation.
- Stop talking about poverty. Many people don’t believe in poverty in developed countries, and it becomes a diversion arguing about its definition. Those struggling on low incomes with low wealth and few opportunities don’t want to be labelled ‘poor’; who would given the vile rhetoric that is thrown around in public?
- Those on low incomes are not helpless or hopeless; don’t paint them as victims, instead show the huge efforts that many families go to in order to make life work for their families. They have huge potential.
- Talk about the lack of fairness in the opportunities available for those on low incomes with few assets. This goes to the heart of inequality and the impact of low incomes. Kids and families in New Zealand simply do not have equality of opportunity and it is delivering mortal blows to our economy.
- Don’t claim ownership of caring is limited to one political persuasion (or indeed that others care too much and are bleeding hearts). It is polemic and does not get us closer to delivering the solutions that work.
- Discuss the specifics of about solutions. What can we do? Focus on what works. People are open to radical solutions.
- Question people hard on the science, especially the quality and independence of it and the particular outcomes they are seeking to change. The science has to support the solution being proposed and the outcome has to have meaning for families’ not just governments or ideologies.