Brooke Stanley Pao, the incoming co-ordinator for Auckland Action Against Poverty, has some choice words for the current government on exactly what ‘kindness’ without action achieves for people living in poverty.
Back in 2017, before Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as prime minister, she said she wanted the new government to be “empathetic and kind”. We’re all familiar with the “be kind” mantra, but I question its ability to achieve… well, anything. Ardern asked landlords to chill with raising their rent, when the kind thing to do would be to introduce rent controls. Work and Income staff were asked to have more compassion when dealing with people, when the kind thing to do would be to provide liveable incomes for all. What’s happening on the ground in our communities is the opposite of “being kind” and we’re over it.
People receiving benefits can’t eat kindness. They can’t pay their overpriced rent and power bills with it. They can’t buy food with it or take their babies out to the movies, or have a nice family meal out during the school holidays with it. “Be kind” means nothing to the families Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) serve in our communities. It means nothing when you fail to uphold the principles and values of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It means nothing without meaningful action and practices behind it.
Work and Income must have missed the “be kind” memo because people are still being declined basic assistance and care. The winter energy payment is running out in October. Those in emergency housing will be charged 25% of their entire income. Supposedly 30,000 more people are going to have more money in their pockets because they will be allowed to work a whole eight hours at minimum wage before their benefits are affected.
Implementing initiatives that only affect tens of thousands of people isn’t enough when hundreds of thousands of people live below the poverty line here. The government is choosing to stay on the same status quo track its been on for generations.
Many of us are familiar with how Metiria Turei was run out of parliament before the 2017 election, simply because she shared her truth about what she had to do in order to survive as a young single mother. Our incredible volunteers, many of whom are receiving benefits, have been harassed online for sharing the truth about their own lives. AAAP – alongside other organisations like Child Poverty Action Group, KidsCan, Action Station, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, unions, the Human Rights Commission, and the Children’s Commission – have been demanding the government transform our welfare system and still not enough is being done. We have seen the government respond to gun laws and Covid-19 with swift decision making. It can no longer say it has not heard us or that it is unaware of the extreme levels of poverty that exist in Aotearoa.
It’s so much deeper than having enough money to thrive. Current benefit levels are the state’s way (the colonial way) of saying “This is what we believe you’re worth, and the only way out of poverty is through paid work”, when so many of our people contribute meaningfully in roles outside of this colonial construct. These rates continue to perpetuate and uphold a colonial narrative about the value of a human life. Te Tiriti o Waitangi is the agreement that allows all tauiwi to be here and we cannot move forward without establishing this as an entrenched and founding document of Aotearoa. We can not address any of the continued injustices of colonisation until we first recognise Te Tiriti.
Despite all of this – the continued undermining of sovereignty, strict obligations and sanctions those accessing benefits have to meet, and the scrutiny by case managers at Work and Income, random people on the internet, and racist family members – the people and communities we serve at AAAP are all aroha and heart. There is sharing, and a genuine sense of family and community here, something we could never come close to quantifying in dollar terms. These communities have real kindness and empathy for each other, and it shows in the way they show up for each other through all the violence, trauma, sadness, and judgement from others. We are incredibly honoured to fight for and with them for systemic change, and it is our privilege to serve them at AAAP.
Back in August we launched our Liveable Incomes For All Campaign, asking political parties to commit to increasing benefits to liveable levels, individualising income support and removing benefit sanctions within three years. The only parties that accepted our invitation to talk on these issues were the Māori Party and the Green Party, and they both showed us that they’re willing to fight for our people in the halls of power in support of the changes we need. The Labour Party, a couple of hours before the first leaders debate on TVNZ, told us that it could not commit to any of these things over the next term in government.
We here at AAAP believe in upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We believe all peoples have intrinsic value and the right to exist. We believe in liveable incomes for all, that people are owed their own money. We believe that all people do mahi whether it is recognised or not, and we believe in our government investing in building enough public housing to meet the needs of our people.
We want more than kindness. We want the political bravery necessary to lift people out of poverty. Anything else is lip service.