Last week a teacher at one of our partner schools wiped away tears as she told us what her students are dealing with. Kids coming to breakfast club who haven’t eaten the night before. Kids sharing a small house with 15 others, sleeping on the lounge floor. Kids who don’t even take home the school camp letter because they don’t want to burden their parents with a cost they can’t afford.
“Parents are working hard. They are working nights, they are working multiple jobs, but the cost of living is so high they can’t work hard enough. We have teachers here who are getting paid fairly well and they are struggling. So how some of our families are coping, we just don’t know,” she said, her voice cracking.
Poverty is forcing families to make unfair choices, made worse by the pandemic. For some, rent now swallows $750 a week – most of their meagre income. Every day they must decide what basics to pay for – and what to go without. “Number one is paying the rent,” the teacher said. “Anything else is a luxury if you can afford it.”
Let that sink in. Enough food is “a luxury.” She sees children taking leftover school lunches home, knowing there won’t be anything for dinner. Transport is “a luxury.” Unable to afford petrol or a bus pass, some kids just don’t make it to school. Power is “a luxury.” Many families are on prepaid meters. When the money runs out, so too does their ability to cook, or clean, or wash. With dirty uniforms they keep their kids home, hiding their shame.
It's not just parents making terrible choices. Their children are making choices no child should have to make. Do I wear the only pair of shoes to school, or does my brother? Do we get wet in the rain, or miss school and stay home dry? Do I eat my sandwich for lunch, or save it for dinner? More than that, they are trying to hide those choices from their parents, so they don’t put more pressure on them. Letters for the wealth of opportunities school offers – trips, music, sports teams – ditched in the bin. Just imagine their heartbreak.
There’s a lot of debate about whether to call this a crisis. Food costs are their highest in ten years. Rent has jumped. Petrol is nudging $3 a litre. Where do Kiwis in poverty find the extra $4000 to $5000 a year it now costs to afford the basics? The answer is, they don’t. To me, when the essentials are out of reach, that’s a crisis. I know the statistics show we’re making some inroads into child poverty, but surely any progress will be eroded without more action.
At KidsCan, our donations are slowing for the first time in our 17-year history. Some of our long-term monthly donors have been forced to cancel because they can’t keep up with the cost of living themselves. It comes as we need support the most - we’re helping a record number of children in nearly 1000 schools and early childhood centres with food, clothing, and shoes. Many more are waiting for help.
We need to wrap families in poverty with support. We must keep raising benefits and the minimum wage, so they meet the spiralling cost of living. Research shows when you put more money into parents’ pockets, they spend it on their children.
More targeted help is needed to help people claw their way out of this awful poverty trap. The teacher told us of some families with $10,000 or $20,000 of debt on their WINZ cards, racked up in emergency accommodation just trying to keep a roof over their heads. “They can never pay it back,” she said sadly. We must push harder to get more social and affordable housing built, so families grow up in a warm, safe home, not a motel.
Poverty isn’t someone else’s problem. When we lift those on the bottom rung of the ladder up, we all thrive. This month at KidsCan we’re aiming to support 500 more children from our waitlist. We want to take some of the stress out of their lives and let them be kids. We want them to have the opportunity to be great. They deserve to live in a world where they’re not choosing who wears the shoes, where their teachers aren’t crying with worry, and when the school camp can be a reality – not a dream in the dustbin.
- Julie Chapman (CEO and founder, KidsCan)