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Slipping into the poverty trap

Thursday 21st May 2015

More young adults are asking for food parcels and emergency accommodation, workers in the sector say. 

Youth worker Simon Mareko says accommodation is the biggest need for the young people he sees.

Photo: Alexander Robertson/The Wireless

Growing up in the countryside near Taumarunui, Rayden Horton spent a lot of time outdoors – fishing and eeling and playing with friends. It sounds like the typical New Zealand bucolic idyll, but farming is often expensive, and leaves little room for luxuries.

“We were very limited on how much food we had, we couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. I wouldn’t say we were well off at all.” After moving “into town”, things were even harder.

Cupboards were almost bare, and Rayden’s younger brother took a year off rugby because the family couldn’t afford to pay the fees. Clothing for winter and school uniforms were “a bit of a mission.”

In the lead-up to this week’s budget, much of the focus is on child poverty, and the estimated 250,000 New Zealand children who live in poverty. But some youth workers say more attention needs to be paid to young adults as increasing numbers turn to services like food banks and temporary shelters.

For me what poverty looks like is lack of wealth – people on a benefit, people on a very low income, people who are homeless or jobless. But it’s also a lack of opportunity. So there’s nothing there for people my age to be able to do things to enhance themselves.

“In Taumarunui, I’ve heard increased reports of youth theft where the target is not appliances or expensive goods, but simply, food – in particular frozen meat from freezers,” said Horton, who is now a youth worker.

“For me what poverty looks like is lack of wealth – people on a benefit, people on a very low income, people who are homeless or jobless. But it’s also a lack of opportunity. So there’s nothing there for people my age to be able to do things to enhance themselves.”

People aged between 16-24 aren’t more likely to be living in poverty than people older – the rates are about the same for people aged 25-44. About 16 percent of both groups live in poverty, Unicef estimates from the 2014 Household Economic Survey. That compares to about 22 per cent of those under 18.

But people who can’t afford what they need at that age are much more vulnerable, according to Auckland City Missioner Diane Robertson. She said the Mission is seeing increasing numbers of younger people turning up for food parcels or help with accommodation, especially men in their 20s.

Robertson said acknowledging the problem, and trying to understand it is the first step.

“The young men who come to see us aren’t people who were necessarily brought up in poverty.

“They were starting out at university, or in a job, they’re not coping well, they’re in a flat, there’s not enough money, they’re getting depression, and it’s all starting to get difficult. And we don’t know enough about that.”

Robertson said young people are less savvy and more vulnerable to exploitation - they often end up involved in sex work or in the drug trade.

“If they haven’t qualified for a benefit, if they’re moving from one place to another, it’s really an uncomfortable existence, because they’re totally dependent on other people for their help.”

Robertson points out that the needs of young people are very different to older people dealing with poverty. “The hope is that with young people, you get them in and out of services as quickly as possible, so they don’t become long-term users.”

She said there was a definite shortage of temporary and emergency accommodation for young people. 

Simon Mareko, a community youth worker at Evolve Youth Service in Wellington, agrees saying there needs to be a focus on that 14-25 age bracket and getting them “sussed” as quickly as possible and  more accommodation is the biggest need. 

“That would give us some breathing space to be able to figure out the next couple of steps around financial support, around other young people they know who might need that support as well.”

Mareko has 15 clients who are at various degrees of homelessness – from sleeping rough to living in temporary shared accommodation. And he believes that’s an increase on previous years.

For many young adults, there’s a range of factors that contribute to the situation, he said. Sixteen or 17-year-olds can’t sign a lease, and they’re only eligible for a benefit if they’re still at school. “The barriers start to outweigh the possibilities, and it just makes things a little bit harder.”

A lot of them come in, and they might get a free meal, there’s a roof over their head during the day, they’ll be able to keep dry, and have a shower, and just feel like they’re a human being, and like they’re OK.

For most of the people that come through Evolve’s doors, the trouble starts at home – usually a breakdown with family. That means that they help people need isn’t just finding accommodation, he said.

“Particularly at our place, it’s just somewhere to belong to start off with … So, a lot of them come in, and they might get a free meal, there’s a roof over their head during the day, they’ll be able to keep dry, and have a shower, and just feel like they’re a human being, and like they’re OK.”

Poverty is a complex issue – not least because there’s no one definition of what it is.

“It’s one of those things that you kind of know it when you feel it,” said Simon Chapple, the economist for the Dunedin Multi-disciplinary Health and Development Research Unit. “But you can have a wide variety of circumstances in a household that’s getting $30,000 a year, that has one adult and three children in it.”

Dr Chapple said there are a number of very good measures of poverty, but not one that measures everything. In general, poverty means people who don’t have enough material resources to fully participate in society – which in itself begs a lot of questions. Mostly, young adults have a lower rate of poverty than that for children – and the effects of poverty are likely to be less detrimental for young adults.

For 16-24 year-olds the big questions include where they are living, and what financial contribution they are making to the household. The question isn’t so much what poverty is, but what is making young people poor, he said.

“We all ate beans for three years when we went to university, and it didn’t do us too much harm,” he said. “Where my concern would be would be those poor kids whose families are so dysfunctional that they left very early. Or those young people who are poor and not making the school-to-work transition successfully.”

Alan Johnson, a senior policy analyst for the Salvation Army’s Social Policy & Parliamentary Unit, argues that there are barriers in place making that transition more difficult than it has been for generations. The recession following the Global Financial Crisis, and the increasing casualisation of the workforce – including zero-hour contracts – have affected young people more.

In a report [pdf] last year, Johnson wrote that the slump in the employment fortunes of teenagers has been disguised by definitions. “The official unemployment rate quoted in the media, and sourced from Statistics New Zealand’s Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS), requires an out-of-work person to be immediately available for work and to be actively seeking a job. People who have become discouraged in their job search, or who have decided, because of poor job prospects, to undertake full-time training or education are not considered to be unemployed.”

The official unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds is 15 per cent (compared to the overall rate of 5.8 per cent.) Johnson said when those people are taken into account, the rate is more likely to be above 30 percent.  “I’m not certain how comparable that is on an apples with apples basis with what’s happening right now in Greece and Spain, but there, you’ve got unemployment rates of 50 per cent. It’s in the same order.”

Add to that the cost of housing especially in areas where there are jobs available. “That can cause problems insofar as there’s not as many opportunities to form flats as a there were a few years ago, because landlords can be more discerning about who they rent to.”

Because younger people were less politically active than older people, and because their interests weren’t as easily identifiable, Johnson said, it’s easier for politicians to ignore them. Superannuation is an obvious vote winner – tackling youth unemployment less so.

“If you came through a time where you could get a job relatively easily in the university holidays,” he said, “and get into the course you wanted, move into the career you wanted, because jobs for graduates were there you wouldn’t understand the frustration and alienation that a lot of young adults are feeling right now.”

In last year’s budget, the Government added $20 million to its apprenticeship scheme, but Alan Johnson argues that is just reinstating cuts made between 2007 and 2012. “That there remains around 25,000 young people under 20, and a further 50,000 people between 20 and 25, not in work or any meaningful education or training, it should be seen as a national disgrace and not simply accepted as the status quo.”

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Megan is a former senior producer for The Wireless. She has worked in Radio New Zealand News, Sport, and Radio New Zealand International, has an extensive library of animated gifs, and spends too much time on the internet.
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