2 Feb 2020

'It's time for New Zealand to wake up to its poverty problem'

From Sunday Morning, 7:29 am on 2 February 2020

Multiple siblings sharing a single school uniform, school kids living with their families in cars.

These are stories that sound as though they are from another place, but sadly these are first-hand examples of the poverty problem in New Zealand.

Ricardo Fox is the principal of Mayfair School in Hastings and is at the coalface of the struggle with poverty.

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Photo: 123rf

He told Jim Mora the situation had deteriorated in the last 3 years.

“It was through going to Mayfair School and seeing some of our hard-working families, really struggling to provide the basic necessities for their children at school and for themselves as a family.”

Fox says one family was sharing a single school uniform.

“What would happen is that on different days the children would wear the uniform and come to school - on the oldest child it would be tight and on the youngest child that would be too loose.”

Fox says these are not the children of neglectful parents.

“These are parents that are working, both parents are working, they're working hard to provide a roof to be over their children’s head.

“And to be able to get to school, they love their kids and they just want the best for their kids. It's just that they're in a financial situation as a family that puts them in a really tight spot.”

The housing crisis is starting to bite in Hastings, Fox says, and people are paying very high rents.

“One of the things that I've noticed is the significant price of rent that some of our families are paying in our community, and those are the ones that are able to get into a house.

“We've got such a shortage in Hastings. We've got a number of local motels in the area, and all of them, bar two, are emergency housing for families.”

Fox says he knows of children living in cars and multiple families living under one roof.

“It's tough, it’s heart-breaking when you have parents and children who are hungry, parents who want to be able to provide food for their children but are unable to do it.”

The school is at the centre of a strong community, he says. But about a quarter of families in the area are struggling.

“I would say 25 percent of our community would struggle with basic necessities; we see the basic necessities of school as lunches, children being provided with breakfast before school, uniform, having text books on the first day is a huge thing and we notice children really feel shamed among their peers by not having a pen to write in their books or the books to write in.”

Fox says the school, with the full backing of the board of trustees, is aiming for equity for its pupils.

“For us, equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. And equality is treating everyone the same. And so we decided that equity was the key focus of what we needed to be working on, equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts at the same place and needs the same help, we know in New Zealand that’s not the case.”

In its push to make life easier for parents, the school is launching its own uniform, he says.

“What we're trying to do is create a uniform that costs less than $10 for our families.”

The situation has got worse in the last three years, he says.

“I firmly believe things are getting worse. In the last three years, the housing crisis that we have in New Zealand is very, very real. I'm almost embarrassed sometimes that my kids have their own room. Because the number of kids that are sharing rooms with the siblings, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you know, some of these kids as they get older, they need their own space.”

The gap between the actual cost of living and income needs to be addressed, Fox says.

“I don't know what the magic remedy is, all we’re trying to do at Mayfair School [is] to make a difference and try to do something different so that we can share with other schools and other people throughout New Zealand to give kids a chance to get out of the label they have with regard to poverty.

“As far as I'm concerned, it's something that's getting worse.”