More New Zealand families struggling at Christmas

12:08 pm on 28 December 2018

The Salvation Army has handed out more than 14,000 food parcels in this year's annual Christmas appeal and expects the number will continue to climb.

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Volunteers and staff throughout New Zealand spent the festive season packing and handing out 14,394 food parcels. Photo: Supplied

Figures released this morning show the charity drive helped almost 15,000 children with the support of donations from the public.

Volunteers and staff throughout New Zealand spent the festive season packing and handing out 14,394 food parcels, organising budgeting and counselling services and providing housing for 400 families.

Salvation Army head of welfare services Major Pam Waugh said the numbers are already 10 percent up on last year, and the final week before Christmas had not been tallied yet.

"We wished it wasn't that high but the reality is that it is that high and we know that child poverty, and all those factors around it, have a huge impact on children going forward."

She said what most concerned her was the long-term effects on impoverished children who faced set-backs as a result of poverty.

"We know there's a lack of hope and lower self worth in these children and sometimes it takes them longer to escape the effects of poverty than those who haven't grown up in poverty."

One in five children under the age of 15 experienced moderate-to-severe food insecurity, according to the Child Poverty Monitor report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner released earlier this month.

Ms Waugh said the figure was upsetting, but not surprising.

"That's between 161,000 and 188,000 New Zealand children who can't count on having regular nutritious meals. It's incredibly heart-breaking to hear children take on the pressure of financial hardship and say they need to find ways to get money to help Mum and Dad."

She said there was a high demand for basic needs this Christmas, such as food, clothing and shelter, and this would continue into the New Year.

"The start of the school year brings even more strain with stationery, uniforms and transport costs. For many families on low incomes it's a time of incredible pressure after Christmas and a long holiday period," she said.

Registered clinical psychologist at Victoria University, Dr Dougal Sutherland, said the struggle extends beyond physical needs for children living in poverty.

"Children are the victims of circumstance and can't escape the weight of poverty. Stress on the developing brain can have a major effect on mental health.

"Prolonged poverty can lead to a lack of hope and lower self-worth - major factors in crime and youth suicide."

Ms Waugh said while it was easy to judge those seeking help and assume they've spent unwisely, but most of their clients were money-savvy.

"The reality for us is a lot of people we work with can budget down to the very last 10 cents and can probably budget better than we do because they've only got that limited income. It just does not go far enough.

"So there's misconceptions and unless we know the whole story of the whole family, we don't make them because they just don't need our judgment when they're trying to hard to move ahead and get on top of things."

Ms Waugh said she hoped to see the benefits of new government initiatives, including Winter Energy Payments and the Families Package, soon.

Government Duty Minister Andrew Little said he was disappointed, but not surprised, to hear the figures.

"It's still obviously very worrying for us that we're still seeing an increase from one Christmas to the next of the number of food parcels that organisations like the Salvation Army are handing out.

"This is a government that's made reducing child poverty a top priority...we have a long way to go and these figures confirm that the challenge is still there for us."

He said government initiatives, like the families package and winter energy payments, would work to lift families out of poverty but it wouldn't happen overnight.

"In the end we have far too many adults on wages that are just too low to maintain a household. When you hear about bus drivers in Hamilton earning $17.50 to $18 an hour that is just ridiculous for that type of work.

"So we have a long way to go as a country to lift incomes to what is a reasonable level for the work that is being done."

In the meantime, she said the Salvation Army was seeking support from the public to continue helping vulnerable families into the New Year.

"The reality is that The Salvation Army can't help these families without the support of the public. We're urging people who have been fortunate enough to enjoy their Christmas to spare a thought and donate to those who were not," she said.

The Salvation Army's Christmas Appeal runs until 15 January.

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