We can do it. We could raise benefit levels, ensuring those who need help don’t just have to exist, but can thrive, writes Aaron Hendry.

Poverty in Aotearoa is viewed by many as something abstract. In the work I do, it isn’t distant. I work for a service that supports young people experiencing homelessness. During the lockdown last year, the emergency food supply was under pressure, and I spent my time at an emergency housing space in Auckland where we were doing what we could to ensure rangatahi who needed it had shelter.

Many of the young people that came through our doors weren’t initially on a benefit. The application process can be complex and intimidating for anyone, let alone for a young person living on the street without access to the internet, a phone, or a computer (essential tools for anyone filling out an online application). Often, when young people reach out, they don’t even know where to start. For those we could help, we’d advocate for them to gain access to emergency accommodation while the benefit application was underway, and do what we could to support their application.

The process isn’t easy: bank accounts, two forms of ID, consistent access to a phone so you can receive calls from the Ministry of Social Development to confirm your application and answer its questions. Most of us take these things for granted. While the young people waited, we relied on food banks to ensure they could eat. There was a period at the beginning of the lockdown where food banks were overwhelmed, and we found ourselves struggling to access what was needed. The young people who already had their benefits would share what meagre resources they had with others. Which wasn’t much.

If you’re a young person needing to access the Youth Payment (the payment to support 16- or 17-year-olds who can’t live with their parents or another guardian), the base rate you’ll get from MSD is $275 a week. That’s just $14,300 a year. If you need to access the Youth Payment, it’s because you’ve had some form of family breaking, resulting in you no longer being able to remain at home.

Some young people are kicked out because of their sexuality or gender identity, others flee home because of violence and abuse. Whatever the reason, young people accessing the Youth Payment live independently and are essentially homeless when they first reach out to MSD. Some are lucky to have trusted community networks who they can board with. Others have to seek boarding with strangers. Still others end up couch-surfing: first with friends, then with strangers, and often it’s a matter of time before they end up living on the street or in emergency accommodation.

An additional challenge young people on the benefit have is MSD’s Money Management system. This means the young person’s board or power is paid directly from MSD to whoever they’re boarding or living with. It’s not a bad idea, and many young people I’ve spoken to find it quite helpful, as it’s one less thing for them to worry about and ensures their accommodation is secure. However, it means they only get $50 a week into their bank account, and anything left over goes into their payment card for food and essentials (only if there is anything left over after their accommodation has been paid).

Can you imagine living off $275 a week? Even with Accommodation Supplement, with rents as high as they are, once you add in food, clothes, transport, phone charges, and other essentials, that’s not much to get by. These young people, through no fault of their own, are consigned to poverty by the very system meant to provide support for those who are doing it the hardest.

When you hear “structurally marginalised”, this is what we’re talking about. Someone’s made the decision $275 a week is what our young people are worth. That’s not enough to get by. Let alone enough to get ahead, navigate life, focus on getting an education, or afford safe or stable housing. Before barely even having the opportunity to begin their lives, young people have been marginalised by decisions made about them, not with them. Our rangatahi are not inherently marginalised. Their vulnerability is not engrained. They have been made vulnerable because of how we have structured our society.

We are told constantly to wait, that change is coming, that now’s not the right time, that benefit levels are rising – but for those experiencing poverty today, there’s no time to wait. The need to eradicate poverty, not just reduce or alleviate it, is urgent.

We can do it. We could raise benefit levels, ensuring those who need help don’t just have to exist, but can thrive. We could build a system that ensures young people reaching out for support are provided with safe, stable and supported housing. As well as liveable incomes, and financial support to ensure they can focus on seeking employment or education, and avoid being pulled into poverty.

Poverty does not need to exist within Aotearoa. Homelessness can be consigned to the past. If the 2020 lockdowns taught us anything, it’s that we can move mountains with political will and collective imagination. It’s time we made clear to our Government that we will no longer accept the structural marginalisation of our people. That we will not accept poverty as if it’s a fixed reality. It’s time to eradicate poverty.

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