I came to New Zealand to look at the issues of poverty and services provided by the social safety net. What I found was a very generous society that provided many services to those living in poverty but a shift in the government policy related to the types of services that would be given due to financial considerations. I spent a day meeting with several people and groups that had strong and differing opinions about what the changes in system meant and why they were occurring.
I had the opportunity to meet with Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett who runs the office that deals with the policies related to providing benefits to the disadvantaged. She is a well known figure in New Zealand government and is also a former Eisenhower Fellow from New Zealand. Minister Bennett is well respected by many here but is equally controversial to those who provide services to the disadvantaged that believe she is gutting a system for those who can least afford it. I really enjoyed my time with Minister Bennett because I found her to be a person who felt very strongly about the policy changes that she was pursuing because she believed that if some changes weren’t being made the system would not be able to financially survive. She also believed that the programs were there to help people in the short term while there was a need but not to become a generational entitlement that kept people living in poverty. I asked her about the fact that she was not always popular with the non profit community and how she felt about it. As she pointed out to me she herself was a teenage mom and had used benefits to better her life and that she wanted other people to have the chance to achieve their dreams and she believed that what she was doing was the right thing. She said being poor was much harder than politics or any of the criticism that she may face.
Next I had a meeting with the UN Women of New Zealand where we discussed the projects that they were working on related to women’s rights and also looking at the level of participation of women on corporate boards. We also spent a good amount of time talking about the role that government should play in helping the disadvantaged and although we didn’t always agree on how the help should look but we did agree that a social safety net was necessary. They believed much more in what we would call a “nanny state” or the collective.
I got an opportunity to meet with individuals from the Ministry of Social Development who make recommendations to Minister Paula Bennett about which programs to keep and which to cut. It was interesting to get the prospective of individuals who are not politicians and work for different administrations that may have different values and agendas that they may want to see occur. I found them to be intelligent and thoughtful people who were interested in really helping those in need but attempting to balance that with the needs of the larger community.
Lastly I was invited back to The Clubhouse (which is a drop in center for the homeless during the day when shelters are closed) along with Stephanie McIntrye from the Downtown Ministries and I was given an opportunity to share my story of poverty and listen to the people who are receiving these services. I really respected what everyone there was trying to do. Many people suffered with mental health and drug addictions and wanted a way out. When you talk to these people you realize that they are not trying to take advantage of the system, they are just trying to get by in life. The question that I still have is what is most helpful to people living in poverty in the long term.
What I have concluded about the system in New Zealand is that it is very generous and reflects the values of the New Zealand people. They are a society that believes in taking care of each other but they are starting to face some of the realities of having a growing population in need of service which is keeping the system working effectively. I have seen two different societies and how they deal with providing services to the disadvantaged and both are different than the US. India gives so much less than we do in the US but that is due to family structure And the belief that family will take care of each other and thr size of population, the other New Zealand is even more generous than the US but does not seem to have better outcomes for its people of color in terms of the negative impacts of poverty.
I don’t know what the correct answer to helping people overcome poverty is. I suspect that it will take a combination of different approaches but what I do know is that I would rather live in a society that gives too much to its people than too little.