Group releases 'Voices of Poverty'

Skyrocketing food and fuel costs, increases in GST, and reduced employment opportunities have made the past year hard for many. But spare a thought for those living below the poverty line.

Presbyterian Support Otago (PSO) released its annual "Voices of Poverty" report yesterday, revealing what life was like for those who accessed its services in Dunedin.

Between July 1, 2010 and June 20, 2011, Family Works provided budgeting, income-related advice and tangible support to 2921 families and individuals.

Total interventions for emergency assistance, budgeting, community welfare and counselling was 8253, compared with 5860 in 2009-10 and 5150 in 2008-09; representing a 60% increase in demand over three years.

To compound this, petrol prices rose 20.1% in the year to June 30, 2011, and food prices increased 7% from June 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011; compared with consumer price inflation which sat at 5.3% in June.

PSO chief executive Gillian Bremner said the organisation's foodbank had never been busier and believed government initiatives had little effect.

The Working for Families package introduced in 2004 had "significant potential" to alleviate poverty, but the way it had been applied meant those who needed it most would never access it fully.

Last year's income tax reductions and GST increase had not cancelled each other out, as promised, she said.

Mrs Bremner was also critical of the "populist call" of "welfare to work" and questioned whether there would ever be enough jobs to deliver a sustainable income to all people of a working age.

The families PSO worked with needed flexible, sustainable jobs with a decent wage, but part-time and unskilled jobs were insecure, and the 90-day trial period did little to improve the situation.

The transition from benefit to work was also problematic, with high abatement rates meaning effective marginal tax rates could be 92c for every dollar earned over $80.

PSO believed Work and Income should adopt a more client-centred approach to help people manage the transition to work, because personal case managers would be familiar with the circumstances of each family.

Other recommendations made in its report, for policy-makers at a local, regional or national level, included ensuring families had sufficient income to meet their basic needs.

Adequate nutritious food, clothing, medical and dental care and warm secure housing should be at the top of all political party agendas, it said.

The minimum wage and benefits should be indexed to the Consumer Price Index, Labour Standards Index or other cost of living standards benchmarks.

It also recommended ensuring no family paid more than 30% of its income in housing costs; and that policies be implemented to remove barriers to health care, including medication, for the nation's poorest families.


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