Gaps in Government’s strategy to support parents in poverty

June* is a Grandmother living in Kawerau, a small town with a population under 10,000. She has lived there all her life and like almost 30% of the adults living in the area, never received a qualification at school. But in parenting she’s an expert and now raises her two grandsons at home, Daniel and Noah.
“After the years of not having any kids… well Daniel and Noah came up. So you know, if we didn’t take them, where would they be?”

Presbyterian Support Northern has been operating in the Bay of Plenty area for over 60 years, focusing on the smaller towns like Kawerau surrounding Whakatane. These towns have very limited access to services because of the geographical distance from the main centres. The median income in Kawerau is just over $20,000 per annum.

June appreciated all the support and advice she could get and didn’t know why the boys’ visits from Oranga Tamariki’s social worker had to finish.

“We had an Oranga Tamariki social worker in Rotorua and she came and said to me, this is the last visit. I thought oh my gosh, where am I going to go?”

Nothing about June’s conditions had changed – she was still struggling, couldn’t treat herself to any nice things anymore, which left her ‘hangry’ when the boys misbehaved – still, she’d get no further government-funded social support until the child’s B4 school check with Plunket. That’s because there is currently no early intervention strategy by government that specifically looks to support the families and whānau of children between the ages of 3 and 5.

When Presbyterian Support Northern discovered this, they piloted their own Social Workers in Early Childhood Education (SWiECE) program, through private donations and grants**. Thankfully they chose Kawerau for their pilot, so June didn’t have to wonder, but parents and grandparents living in poverty everywhere else in New Zealand should ask: Where’s my support? To make sure my child isn’t left behind before s/he even starts school?

Where not-for-profit organisations like Presbyterian Support don’t offer a program for 3-5 year olds, there is no social service targeting this vulnerable age-bracket.

New Zealand’s government has a shifting number of services and programs supporting whānau to raise young children. There is Family Start, a flagship home-visiting program for pregnant mothers and family with infants and children up to 3 years old. Then there is Social Workers in Schools (SWiS) which is primary school based (years 1-8). Both interventions have been proven effective in addressing social challenges for at-risk families, such as housing unaffordability, food insecurity, financial hardship and trauma, yet Family Start and SWiS budgets were cut by Oranga Tamariki across the country by up to 10% in 2022.

So for now, government has a big gap in its safety net for struggling whānau like June’s. There are plenty of communities across New Zealand that sit collectively either close to or beneath the poverty line, like Kawerau. Despite their grand/parents’ best efforts, children in these communities grow up with less opportunities and greater risk of poor health, education, then low employment outcomes long term. Unless a Social Worker recognizes and develops their strengths, resources, resilience and problem solving abilities, they and their families are not as likely to get ahead or flourish.

June says the support she received from Presbyterian Support Northern’s pilot was great because with a social worker’s help, June got better results dealing with Work and Income.

“I don’t think I’ve met a person so devoted to a job as what she was, you know, you could talk to her about anything.”

Presbyterian Support New Zealand holds a position on poverty because we serve struggling whānau like June, Daniel and Noah and overwhelmingly, it’s because of their material hardship, housing unaffordability and food insecurity that they are at risk. It’s poverty that puts their children’s education, health and safety on the line and that’s a risk for the community at large. It’s also one that government is capable of mitigating through better – kinder – fiscal investments.

For equity’s sake it is Government’s role to provide a safety net for those whānau in our community who find themselves in poverty. In a place like Kawerau, where there is a large Māori population, there is also a Tiriti o Waitangi obligation. Shouldn’t we find it frustrating when we see charities raising their own funds in the community, to provide the support that our taxes, invested more wisely by government, could have paid for?

*The name and image in this article are fictional representations and Presbyterian Support keeps the identities of all its clients confidential
**To learn more of the outcomes of PSN’s SWiECE pilot, click here to read its Outcomes Evaluation Report (July 2021)

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