What we learnt at the Maxim Institute poverty roundtable discussions
On his way back to the Beehive, Prime Minister John Key took the opportunity to signal that child poverty is going to be a priority for the Government this term. Key articulated what most Kiwis recognise, that “there are some extremely poor children who are missing out,” and has set Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to work to discover innovative solutions to poverty here in New Zealand. This is an encouraging step.
We’ve been taking steps too. A few days after this announcement, we held a series of roundtable discussions where we brought together policy-makers, academics and practitioners as part of our multi-year project aimed at tackling poverty. Far from being mere talkfests, valuable insights arose from diverse perspectives about what it’s like to live lives deprived of what most Kiwis take for granted and how we can give struggling families the help they need and deserve.
We heard about a family of six living in a ramshackle caravan twice the size of the table we were sitting at. We heard about how debt is “ripping apart the lives” of some South Aucklanders, whose first thoughts upon waking and last thoughts before sleeping are about dire finances. We heard about a child who, when asked what he would do when he grew up, responded with “I want to go to prison, just like my dad.” We also heard that despite all this despair, most families are incredibly resilient and just want something better for their kids. While this instinct remains, there is hope, but we’ll have to listen carefully for it.
We were invited to come spend time at the caravan park and the food bank, and we will. As a think tank, we can only do so much by writing submissions, recommending policy and organising discussions. It is important work, but with a problem as complex as poverty it’s only one part of the solution. The state is great at redistributing income for example, but it’s rubbish at relationships, where on-the-ground community groups excel. Both parts are needed, and then some. Government officials, academics, advocates, schools, non-profits, churches and businesses all need to listen to one another, then work together towards a shared goal.
After hearing stories about what drives and sustains those who sat at the roundtable, regardless of whether they’re based on the marae or in the Beehive—left or right-wing—it became resoundingly clear that everyone there has a genuine heart for the poor. It just manifests in different ways. This quiet but poignant truth can become drowned out by the noise of political grenades whistling over the partisan divide, or muted by the thick-walled institutional silos that can surround us.
As Key said, solutions aren’t straightforward but there is certainly more we can do. Getting people together from across political and institutional divides is a crucial step. The stories, insights and relationships garnered from this process will inform and enrich our work going forward, and hopefully, make a real difference.