This week the Government announced how it plans to ‘reactivate’ Auckland – but will this support extend to those most in need?
The Government’s announcement of a support package for Auckland that aims to resurrect economic, social and cultural activities was welcome news to many in the city.
In many ways it could be the shot in the arm that suffering industries like entertainment and hospitality have been waiting for.
But on the streets of New Zealand’s biggest city, there remain thousands of people who don’t stand to benefit from the package.
Following early warnings that the lacuna of inequality could only be expected to expand under the pandemic, the Reactivating Tāmaki Makaurau offers only temporary solutions for the city’s most vulnerable.
Green Party MP for Auckland Central Chlöe Swarbrick said while it was important to recognise Aucklanders for living through lockdown, support for those struggling to make ends meet didn’t go far enough.
“As a starting point it’s awesome. Aucklanders deserve to be celebrated for the mahi they have done,” she said.
The $37.5 million package will provide vouchers to Aucklanders to eat out or attend events and give discounted entry to Auckland Council facilities, partially as a means to drive foot traffic back to the CBD. Twelve million of that will go towards funding food banks and community organisations.
“The new funding will encourage whānau to re-engage with the special qualities that make Auckland vibrant, modern and exciting,” said Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni at the announcement on Wednesday.
“But we also have families experiencing real deprivation and they need immediate support.”
That support is coming in the form of funding for food banks and community food organisations, which have seen unprecedented surges in demand over the last few months.
“The extra $12 million in funding for food banks and community organisations will provide necessary support to those in our community who have had a particularly tough year,” said Auckland mayor Phil Goff.
But people working in the food support sector and other politicians say this is addressing the symptom, rather than the cause.
“It’s a band-aid,” Swarbrick said. “Sure, we all need to deal with the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when it is necessary, when people are in emergency situations and they need support. But why are we not focusing as well on making sure that people can thrive?”
Co-founder of food support network Kai Collective Philippa Holmes told Newsroom earlier this week that food banks were an immediate and urgent response that didn’t necessarily fix the entrenched issues behind it.
“Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, and poverty is rampant in this country right now,” she said. “The pandemic has only exacerbated that for many families.”
Swarbrick contends that the decision to overlook those most in need exposes that poverty is a political choice.
“Throughout this entire response we have seen billions and billions ploughed into the economy, which has demonstrated that this money can be found when there is urgent need to find it,” she said. “There was the opportunity to do this because it was signposted these problems would occur at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Swarbrick pointed to warnings the Government received from the Reserve Bank and Treasury at the beginning of the pandemic that mounting inequality would likely become an issue.
“For some reason or another certain politicians can see an announcement of support for food banks as is somehow wrapped into reactivating Auckland,” she said. “In fact this is just a temporary salve to what is going to be a very big problem moving forward. Inequality has been exacerbated throughout the Covid-19 economic response, and it’s not going to go away unless it’s addressed.”
Green Party spokesperson for Social Development and Employment Ricardo Menéndez March said the best way to support families to fully participate in Tāmaki Makaurau was to ensure they had liveable incomes.
“Food banks are not a solution to poverty; they are a sticking plaster on a gaping wound of systemic inequality,” he said. “The organisations on the ground are under a lot of pressure to meet the needs of communities that haven’t been filled by Government.”
Food support agency New Zealand Food Network reported a 504 percent increase in demand for food support compared to the same time last year, with operators across the country reporting a similar trend.
Predictably, the most intense surges in demand were experienced in Auckland.
But neither Swarbrick nor Menéndez March believe addressing the problem needs to come at the cost of reviving industries like hospitality – it doesn’t need to be a trade-off.
“Instead of focusing on subsidies for businesses and leftover food, the Government needs to increase incomes to ensure that people can meet their needs and then spend their leftover money on local businesses and therefore both alleviate hardship and inject money into the community,” said Menéndez March.
The package is split into two stages – the Explore Tāmaki Makaurau this Summer voucher and discount scheme and the Local Activation Fund, through which businesses and community organisations will be able to apply for funding for free public events, with the idea of resurrecting neighbourhoods and town centres across the Auckland region.