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Not such a good century so far

Opinion Piece

In an editorial at the beginning of the year, the New Zealand Herald announced that having enjoyed “a long period of comparative economic and political stability,” it has been a good century so far for New Zealand. But has it been a good century so far for New Zealanders? I guess it depends on who you are asking.

The top 10 percent’s wealth has increased massively, from $258 billion to $436 billion since the early 2000s, and that growth shows no sign of slowing down. The National Business Review rich list revealed that the wealth of New Zealand’s richest 184 individuals increased by $3.8 billion to an estimated $55 billion last year. This is the biggest proportional increase since the rich list first appeared in 1986. I guess that’s a good century so far.

However, in his recent book Wealth and New Zealand, Max Rashbrooke demonstrated how one person’s gain is an awful lot of other people’s losses. In a country where the richest 1 percent of the country hold nearly a fifth of all the wealth, while the poorest half of the country, about 1.7 million adults, have just 3.8 percent, the average New Zealand worker now earns $10,000 less today than if they had maintained the share of national income from the early 1990s.

Has it been a good century so far?

For many in New Zealand the reality of the new century has not been one of stability but poverty, and worrying about keeping a roof over their heads, about keeping warm, and wondering if there’ll be enough money left over to eat properly.

The latest Child Poverty Monitor report, released on December 14, paints a sorry picture of New Zealand society, with 305,000 children (or 29 percent) living in poverty. Furthermore a Unicef New Zealand press release on December 9 reported that 12 percent of New Zealand’s children live in homes with serious cold, damp and mould problems. The report concluded that, “every year there are 40,000 hospitalisations . . . much of this is due to poor quality housing and the inability to heat homes”.

Additionally, a growing number of people are unable to find any accommodation at all. The Citizens Advice Bureau reported in November that it received more than 3000 emergency housing enquiries nationwide in the year to June, double what it received five years ago. The report noted that, “These are inquiries from families, pregnant women, and children living in cars or garages.”

Of course, we are repeatedly told that the poverty people suffer is their own fault, with irresponsible, drug-taking parents simply refusing to knuckle down and get a job. But the same Unicef report points out that of those children in poverty, 37 percent live in households with at least one adult in paid employment. It seems simply getting a job is not a way out of poverty.

It appears that the opposite is true to what the New Zealand Herald wrote, in fact, and it was evident in the increasing numbers of people this Christmas queuing at food banks. The Auckland City Mission reported the longest queues of people looking for help they had ever seen.

So what’s to be done? The only things on offer from all the political parties are reforms and tinkering with tax systems.

The reality is we need to forget putting our faith in politicians and organise ourselves in our communities and workplaces, and make our demands heard for a just and equitable system where all our needs are met. Maybe then we can talk about the rest of the century truly being a good one.

Stuart Moriarty-Patten