Working hard, still struggling
In New Zealand’s poverty debate, work is often touted as the silver bullet solution, the one thing that will solve all of our problems. “Get everyone able into work and we’ll be ok,” so the policy story goes. But the story is more complicated. Work matters, but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of solutions.
Employment is, of course, a very good thing. Lack of employment has been identified as one of the leading risk factors of poverty and conversely, one of the strongest protective factors. This is why in recent years the government has been particularly focused on getting people off benefits and, hopefully, into work. While it’s one of the closest things to a silver bullet we have—there is no hard and fast rule. Lack of employment won’t automatically result in poverty, and employment won’t necessarily prevent someone from becoming homeless. We need to acknowledge the existence of in-work poverty, a daily reality for many New Zealanders.
Traditionally, it is those relying on the social welfare system that come to mind when we think of New Zealanders struggling to get by. However, an OECD report claimed that “on average 7 percent of individuals living in households with at least one worker are poor in the OECD area.” For poor children in New Zealand, that number is around 40 percent. Recent findings from Otago University also support this, suggesting that half of New Zealand’s homeless adults are either working or studying. Astonishing.
It’s important that unemployed people remain a major focus in the efforts to help New Zealanders living in poverty. We can’t, however, ignore the people struggling to get enough hours of work for a sufficient pay packet; we musn’t forget the sole-parent families where low paid, full-time work just isn’t enough to make sure the kids aren’t going to school hungry; and we should remember that the cost of childcare might erase any advantage full-time employment brings a single mum.
When the stories are this complicated a simple solution won’t provide the answer. More jobs don’t necessarily mean better jobs. Higher minimum wages might reduce in-work poverty but also increase out-of-work poverty. More elaborate solutions are necessary if we’re serious about the workless poor.
The Government should continue assisting people into work. However, this doesn’t mean a minimising of those people in work who are struggling to get by. We need a deeper understanding of what happens when people move off benefits and into work—what type of work they’re moving into, whether it’s stable or sufficient—and begin to find useful support structures for them. A good place to start could include a flexible employment structure that doesn’t disadvantage single parents for moving into work, and support structures that assist people into sustainable employment.
Just getting people into work isn’t enough. The work must be sustainable and reliable, because it genuinely matters that families have enough to belong and participate in society.