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Grass root earthquakes

Phil McCarthy
Director
Prison Fellowship of NZ P1050738 (2)

Like many baby-boomers, I spent a couple of years in Europe in my mid 20s.  For a few months, I worked in a pub in the East of England.  Tipping was a new experience for a Kiwi abroad in those days but in both my bar and restaurant work, I saw little of the proceeds.

Management insisted that tips be pooled, ostensibly to support the back-room workers.  In reality most went to subsidise the owners’ annual holidays.  Little of it trickled down.

That experience came to mind again recently when I belatedly came across year-old reports of analysis, by the IMF no less, confirming that trickle-down economics was dead.  ‘Cremated’ may actually be a better word, given the IMF have been seen as the high priests of this toxic ideology.

I’m told no economist actually owns trickle-down theory, learning which is a little like waking up in Britain the morning after Brexit to discover there wasn’t really going to be another £350m weekly for the health service!  Whether the policies are labelled ‘supply-side’, ‘trickle-down’ or ‘neo-liberalism’, the notion that freer economies and thriving, healthy corporates automatically brought good economic news for all has been drummed into us as gospel for decades.

But current economic inequalities and the re-emergence of social crises and disparities we thought we had buried in the thirties are a shocking indictment on the direction we have allowed New Zealand society to drift.  The working-poor reality, that even couples working in excess of two full time jobs cannot, in this apparently successful economy, adequately feed, clothe and house their families shames all of us.

I grew up in a New Zealand in which such a situation would have been unconscionable.

At PFNZ we are only too well aware of the acute shortages of housing for those at the bottom of the economic heap, including on our back door step here in Upper Hutt.  In the face of this need, Housing New Zealand has knocked down 54 houses in Trentham and are in the process of selling a further 10 houses.  The HNZ view, apparently, is that no-one wants to live here.  Yet we see houses and sections selling within a week of posting.

Hutt Valley BEST (Beneficiary Education and Support Trust) act as advocates for beneficiaries.  People living in overcrowded houses with relatives are unable to access an appointment and assessment which is the first step to gaining a place on the waiting list.  One solo mother with a sick child has been accepted for a HNZ house and has been waiting since February to leave her mould covered, damp house. One family that we are supporting at PFNZ had their private rent increased from $400pw to $600pw.  BEST has been supporting several families who have been evicted for being unable to pay the higher rents they are being charged.  They are forced to live in their cars at a Motor Camp, which demands a $720 up-front payment and $240pw to park their car on a tent site and use the shared kitchen and ablution facilities.  The camp is full; other families park and sleep on the road!

What is encouraging in this darkness is that ordinary people are standing up to this soul-less orthodoxy and demanding change.  We see practically it in Auckland with the responses of organisations like Te Puea marae and the ever-present Monte Cecilia trust.

Growing disgust at rising inequalities and demands that attention again be given to equitable distribution are starting to produce grass root earthquakes.  We’ve seen snowballing support for the living wage and huge pressure in this country on all parties to accept central responsibility for housing and other growing social crises.

Internationally, it is being suggested that recent poll shocks in the US, UK and Australia may not only be caused solely by the awful racism and islamophobia that is driving some fear-based reactions.  There seems also to be a refusal any longer to accept as successful, economies that grow to the advantage of the few while continuing to spew out thousands of economic cast-offs onto the streets, into the dole queues and of course, into our prisons which are largely populated with the poor, the illiterate, the addicted and the mentally ill.

And it’s happening here in Upper Hutt.  Ordinary folk from St Joseph’s Catholic Parish have also had enough.  They are at the heart of a growing coalition of churches, marae, politicians and other NGOs that is standing up.  A petition has been organised, a Community Housing Trust is being established, and a forum has been created for displaced beneficiaries to tell their stories over soup and buns.  There has been a protest at Parliament and a symbolic protest at the vacant land in Ruahine Street, with people holding hands and circling the perimeter.

As people realise the extent of the problem in Upper Hutt, momentum is growing.  It seems we are at the crossroads as a society and as an international community.  Will we finally recognise that the economic emperor has no clothes or will those of us that have benefited from the economic reforms of recent decades continue to hide from the costs we don’t want to see?

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

ComVoices  actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.

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