Getty Images
Getty Images

OPINIONSocietyMay 14, 2020

While the powerful steer the recovery conversation, others deserve to be heard

Getty Images
Getty Images

Budget 2020: From supermarket workers to machine operators to cleaners, the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile deserve to be be part of the post-pandemic conversation – and to be allowed to speak for themselves, writes Stacey Shortall.

While there is an audible sigh of relief in New Zealand that we are now in alert level two, everyone knows economic times are tough and the pain is about to get worse. We have all read the sobering reports and forecasts.

In the wake of Covid-19, thousands of New Zealanders have gone on benefits. With the wage subsidy paid to around 1.7 million workers set to come to an end, our unemployment rate could also skyrocket. Economists predict it could reach 10% by the end of the year.

The government’s debt levels are fast reaching an all-time high, and widespread changes are occurring across all sectors. The Salvation Army’s recently released social impact report shows the demand for food parcels is at an unprecedented level and the uptake of other assistance packages has been massive.

Today’s budget looms particularly large in this new light. No one can predict what the full extent of this economic crisis will be, or what is the right thing to do to combat it. The only certainty we have is that we need to balance short-term economic recovery with long-term sustainable economic growth. This is no easy balance to strike. It is also fraught with significant controversy, and some of those battle lines are already being drawn.

Food parcels at Auckland City Mission in 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)

There are big expectations that somehow Budget 2020 will help ensure we emerge from Covid-19 with a fairer economy, stronger businesses and a cleaner environment. But as some advocate for the government to prioritise certain sectors of the economy for support, others argue that it would be inappropriate to pick winners now. There is similar disagreement about how the budget should weigh the viability of certain industries against the type of post-pandemic economy New Zealand should aspire to achieve. While some are calling for a climate-friendly recovery, others want jobs protected at all costs. Grumblings about a perceived lack of future planning and ambition are likewise being countered by calls for caution. Expecting a budget to respond to all these competing tensions is a big ask.

As we look to revitalise the economy, major public infrastructure projects, new housing developments, more employment programmes and increased public assistance will almost certainly be part of Budget 2020. Packages have already been announced to support workers, businesses, sectors such as health and aviation, enable the re-deployment of some workers, house some homeless, help victims of violence and pay some teachers more.

Plainly much more assistance is coming. We can only hope that it goes to the places where assistance is really needed the most.

To state the obvious, the ability to cope with the Covid-19 economic crisis will vary across our communities. For some of us, the economic fallout will be new, and we may be more resilient. For others, it will just be the latest hardship in a long series of financial struggles.

With sectors like hospitality and tourism in turmoil there is no doubt that poorer families and lower earners will be hit the hardest by the economic shock brought on by Covid-19. Even before the pandemic, our traditional middle class had been eroded as many New Zealanders were being pushed into the ranks of the working poor, where lives are lived pay cheque to pay cheque, and housing security is precarious. In November 2019, a Human Rights Commission study found that 50,000 working households in New Zealand lived in poverty. Images of poverty have long haunted New Zealand and as our economy has largely been shut down by Covid-19, it is not difficult to imagine that these numbers, and images, will now be far worse.

As Budget 2020 is revealed and New Zealand looks to recalibrate our economy, it will simply not be enough for us to say what we think we already know about people living in poverty. It will not be enough to cover off core issues around income, housing, food, education, jobs, physical and mental health, and community safety. We need to hear from those people who are actually living in poverty and are under the threat of ongoing Covid-19-related turmoil.

A supermarket cashier in Rome during the Covid-19 outbreak (Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP / Getty Images)

Particularly over recent weeks, we have all depended on our essential workers who serve us from behind face-masks and plexi-glass. It is those people we now need to hear from. We need their input on how our economy could operate better for them. We need to hear about the barriers that prevent them from working towards better financial security: fairer wages, affordable and healthy housing, accessible public transportation and readily available childcare.

Economic recovery should not just be something that happens to people. Rather it should be something that happens with them. For that to be a reality, as part of the budget discussion, we need the voices of more supermarket workers, hospitality staff, household and commercial cleaners, tradespeople, machine operators and retail salespeople, to give just a few examples.

We also need to hear from the people who interact with the families of those New Zealanders. Teachers are an obvious starting point. So, too, are the youth and social workers in communities and the frontline providers of food and other support to vulnerable families.

All these voices belong in every single commentary and opinion piece being circulated about the kind of post-pandemic economy New Zealand needs, and they should be in this very piece.

I fear that my voice could never do justice to the issues that need to be addressed in Budget 2020. I worry that because I have represented abused women, worked in disadvantaged communities and advocated for social, and criminal, justice reform, I am somehow seen as a voice for something I am not. I despair that my voice might be listened to when there are others far better qualified to speak the words that matter.

I worry whether I can properly speak to how the budget might address issues of disadvantage and vulnerability when I am not in those circumstances myself, when my only experiences of those challenges is as a lawyer or volunteer. I anguish over whether and what to say, not because I fear criticism (and I know there will be some), but because I might silence those who are more deserving to be heard.

All this is as much about who gets to speak as it is what gets said. I have certainly been on calls and online meetings over the past weeks where people at the frontline of the poverty and despair caused by Covid-19 have talked about what would matter for them: The higher wage that might have enabled them to scrape together some savings to buffer their family when their job was lost. The warmer home that might have been more inviting when they could go nowhere else. The access to a stable and reliable source of food that might have caused them not to worry over what would be put on empty dinner plates that evening. The availability of learning activities and toys that might have better occupied their children. The underlying good physical and mental health that could have meant they less feared fatal sickness. I know first-hand that these matters are all far more compelling coming from the people at the frontline than filtered and interpreted through me.

This pandemic has laid plain just how much health, job stability, safe housing, quality education and resilient communities really matter. The recession it will cause will make these things only matter more. They are the cornerstone issues that must feature in Budget 2020. But you do not need me to tell you that.

Keep going!