He Whakaaro
Material hardship – whose responsibility is it?

Nā Ward Kamo

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, they say. And yet, with the stroke of a pen, “free” lunches are being offered to over 7000 students in 31 schools nationwide. By 2021 the number of schools will rise to 120, with more than 21,000 students serviced.

Well the saying isn’t wrong – there are no free lunches – someone always pays. But more on that later.

The current government has made much of its plan to eliminate child poverty in its first three years of office. The magical 100,000 was touted as the number of children who would be lifted out of poverty. That hasn’t happened. And if statistics are to be believed, the child poverty numbers have gone backward. There are 19,000 more tamariki in poverty, according to reports.

Of the nine different measures of poverty, the most important is the one called “material hardship”. This is the measure of whether families can afford such things as one pair of shoes for their kids. It is one of the three primary poverty measures – the other two being households with income less than 50 per cent of the median income and households with income less than 50 per cent of the household income after housing costs are deducted. The material hardship measure started in 2013 with 18.1 per cent of tamariki below this line. By 2017 it had dropped to 12.7 per cent and in 2019 increased to 13.4 per cent 1. It gets worse. It appears some 151,700 tamariki are classified as experiencing material hardship. And of those children,
28 per cent are Māori. My question is – whose responsibility is it?

Now it’s true that the other two primary measures have improved – but these are relative measures not absolute. They don’t point to whether a family is suffering material hardship – so it’s easy to look good on these first two measures. Bottom line – more New Zealanders are experiencing material hardship – and that’s not a good thing.

Should the Government bear full responsibility for the material hardship of our whānau? What about local boards, city councils, regional councils? Or what about the iwi, the hapū, or even the whānau itself?

As Māori we talk about tino rangatiratanga. In my opinion its definition is hard work, enterprise, and personal responsibility. Because let’s be real – tino rangatiratanga doesn’t begin in a treaty, it doesn’t continue in a treaty settlement, and it doesn’t end in a post-settlement governance entity. It most certainly isn’t a “relationship” with the Crown, or a “partnership”. Tino rangatiratanga begins, continues, and ends with you.

If we look back on our history we see our tīpuna extolling the values of hard work, enterprise, and personal responsibility. The whakataukī are endless. For example, Moea he tama ringa raupā (marry a man with calloused hands – ie: a hard-working man). There’s He kai kei aku ringa (food from my own hands). And for personal responsibility we say Tama tū tama ora; tama moe, tama mate (an active person lives, while a lazy one will die).

All these sayings inevitably focus on the individual. But of course there is also collective effort that is praised. For example, Mā pango, mā whero ka oti te mahi (“Many hands make light work”), as the Pākehā saying goes.

The bottom line is that we extolled hard work, enterprise, and personal responsibility.

So where does that leave us as whānau, hapū, and iwi when others provide the food we should ordinarily be providing for our tamariki? What does it say when a faceless bureaucracy, directed by a distant government, provides food that should, as the saying goes, come from our own hands?

I often tell the story of my Ngāti Mutunga grandfather coming from Wharekauri to Ōtautahi, family in tow, two bob to his name, the Great Depression in full flow, and no welfare system as a backstop. He survived, and indeed flourished. You see, my grandfather was the personification of those whakataukī I’ve quoted. Oh, and my Ngāti Huirapa grandmother Kui Whaitiri was his equal in the home and the workplace, as her 50-odd years at Lane Walker Rudkin can attest. For my grandparents, there was no greater pride than to feed and clothe their children and put a roof over their heads.

There are many who will claim that things are different today. That there is more hardship, fewer jobs (and yet unemployment is the lowest it’s been in generations), and so on. There will also be the odd snide comment that I didn’t grow up poor, so what do I know? They’d be wrong!

The truth is, my parents faced real and material hardship as they raised us. At times there was joblessness, no money, and no power. But I tell you what – even in those hardest of times, there was never poverty.

As far as my parents were concerned, poverty was a state of mind. You see, for a time we required state assistance. There is no shame in that. It is a backstop, and a means to keep families going until sunnier times come round.

Dad worked his garden and Mum did whatever she could to keep our family going. During our hardest times there was food on the table, clothes on our bodies, and a roof over our heads. And importantly there was food in our lunchboxes each day we trooped off to school.

There are those who believe school lunches are just an extension of state assistance – let me assure you they are not. The free lunch programme is nothing to celebrate. It is not a photo opportunity, but rather an admission of failure.

It is a failure of government – a failure of iwi – a failure of whānau. School lunch programmes are our collective failure.

Families can be fed on state assistance. It’s not easy – my parents are not the only members of my whānau that can attest to that. However, with strict focus of spending, prioritisation of basics over luxuries, growing your own kai, and, admittedly, a prayer the car doesn’t break down, you will get there. Thousands of families reliant on state assistance prove this every week.

Equally governments can choose policies that don’t arbitrarily raise the cost of living to a point where families have to rely on the state to do something as soul-destroying as provide lunch for our tamariki because we can’t “kai kei aku ringa”.

But from time to time it simply does get too hard. So should we solely rely on government to sort this out? No – we as iwi, hapū, and whānau have a responsibility; and let’s face it, are the best equipped to advocate for our own. I am hugely encouraged by the mahi Ngāi Tahu has been doing in this space with Oranga Tamariki and look forward to a future where our tamariki and whānau are no longer reliant on a “free lunch”. That’s true empowerment – true tino rangatiratanga.

1 Stats NZ – end June 2019.