A Good Century So Far?


From the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement - http://www.awsm.nz

In an editorial at the beginning of the year, the New Zealand Herald announced that as we enter the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, 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 per cent’s wealth has increased massively, from $258b to $436b, since the early 2000s, and that growth slows no sign of slowing down. The National Business Review Rich List, released in July, revealed that the collective wealth of New Zealand’s richest 184 individuals and families increased by $3.8 billion to an estimated $55 billion, during the previous 12 months. This is the biggest proportional increase since the Rich List first appeared in 1986. That’s a good century ok.

However, the recent book Wealth and New Zealand by journalist Max Rashbrooke demonstrated how one person’s gain is an awful lot of other people’s losses. In a country where the richest one 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. Is it still a good century so far you have to ask?

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, which was released on 14 December, paints a sorry picture of New Zealand society, with 305,000 children (or 29 per cent) now living in poverty. Previous measures have seen child poverty run consistently at 25 percent, with a spike in 2010 to 30 percent. So much for the good century the Herald has been enjoying so far.

Furthermore a Unicef New Zealand press release on 9 December 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 linked to socio-economic status and 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 3,000 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.

Furthermore, the unemployment rate runs stubbornly high and is forecast to rise to 6.5 per cent next year, and this from a treasury half-year economic and fiscal update, released on 15 December, which nearly always prove to be too optimistic. In this case its forecast depends on a rosy scenario of stability in the global economy, especially China, and a recovery in dairy prices, both seeming increasingly unlikely.

In September, Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler warned that a dramatic slowdown in China or a serious drought resulting from the current El Niño weather pattern could push New Zealand into recession. Here at least the New Zealand Herald’s editorial got something right. They warned, “The only cloud in the sky this brilliant summer is the threat of drought it brings to our rural industry still suffering from diminished dairy returns.”

It appears when the evidence is looked at, that the opposite is true to what the New Zealand Herald wrote in fact, and it was most evident in the increasing numbers of people this Christmas queuing at food banks and social welfare agencies for emergency support. The Auckland City Mission reported the longest queues of people looking for help they had ever seen, with people lining up outside the Mission building at dawn every day, to wait for up to six hours for emergency food parcels and children’s gifts.

So what’s to be done? The opposition parties will insist that if you vote for them at the next elections then everything will come right, but under the last Labour government, wage rises barely kept up with inflation, while the richest saw their wealth increase by 75 percent in those same years. Figures for those in poverty remained high, especially child poverty, and the number of people living in “extreme hardship” rose from 5 percent of the population to 8 percent.

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 really talk about the rest of the century truly being a good one.


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