David Kenkel, TEU member and senior Lecturer of Social Practice in the School of Healthcare and Social Practice at Unitec looks at the impact of Budget 2020 on addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.

Budget 2020 was unprecedented in terms of a modern response to a global pandemic. With its $50 billion pledge to fight the imminent COVID-19 economic crash, and the immediate allocation of $15.9 billion to stabilising services and aiding recovery, much of the Government’s spending announced yesterday is directed at keeping New Zealanders working or providing pathways and support into training and employment.

But what does Budget 2020 mean for the most vulnerable? Will Budget 2020 mean more money in the pockets of those that really need it? And, importantly, did Aotearoa really need a pandemic to make it obvious that the free market approach does not deliver collective social well-being?  

While it is excellent to see within Budget2020 significant investment into job protection, job creation, training, and a boost to housing and services for Māori communities, it is not immediately clear that this will mean much for the large number of children in Aotearoa who live in poverty. The Government has also pledged to spend roughly $1 billion on New Zealanders in need, with $412m on social services, and $252m toward feeding New Zealanders through a massive expansion of the free school lunches scheme and more funding for food banks.

This boost in funding will provide much needed support to our most vulnerable families through provision of services in our schools, and through social service providers and community groups. However, this boost does not equate to more money in the pockets of those that really need it.

The correlation between families living on incomes that are too low and decreased wellbeing of children is blindingly obvious and remains largely unaddressed by yesterday’s Budget announcement. As was the case with last year’s ‘Wellbeing Budget’, there has been no dollar increase in benefits and, in light of COVID-19, no additional support for struggling migrant workers.

It’s good to hear that there will be more apprenticeship schemes for young people, but I’m not so sure that means much for a four-year-old whose mum faces a weekly struggle to put food on the table.

While Budget 2020 contains many measures to improve the lives of New Zealanders, some of the moves that are being made in this budget should have been made 15 years ago. If we had done so, a great deal of suffering by those at the bottom of the economic pyramid might have been avoided. Moves to increase financial security for beneficiaries and our lowest paid workers are absent from this budget. The irony of this sudden pandemic-crisis shift toward what some are calling ‘crisis socialism’ is that the social fabric of New Zealand has in fact been in a slow-burn crisis for decades.

Despite much good news in Budget 2020, I remain concerned for our country’s poorest children. The New Zealanders with the least voice who have largely been left out from this Budget.

Financially improving the lives of our most vulnerable, and ensuring people are not reliant on charity for food, would go some way to alleviating a great deal of suffering. We need to continue to work toward decreasing the stark divide between rich and poor in New Zealand which has grown so obscenely fast, and which will only be exacerbated by the present crisis.