The best way to get out of poverty

An article came out today revealing that 20,000 more kids live in poverty than previously thought, mostly because Treasury had trouble counting properly. There are probably a whole lot of jokes to be had there, but that’s not where I’m headed.

Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills was given the last word in the Herald article, saying that “For most, work is the best way out of poverty, and we clearly still have a long way to go on that.” I have a problem with that.

It’s true that many people, particularly single people or couples, can find themselves better off when they get off the benefit. It’s especially true for those that have just been between jobs, who already have qualifications, who are getting qualifications. People with some ‘prospects’. People who can get good jobs.

The people who make up the beneficiary slice of the children in poverty pie aren’t usually people with prospects. They’re un- or under-qualified, they’re not able to work certain hours because they have kids (and childcare is stupidly expensive). These are people who, if they find work, will often find only the work that no-one else wants to do. Stuff that’s poorly paid. Cleaning, care work, supermarket or fast-food jobs.

But they’re working! It’s gotta be better than being on the benefit! . . . Maybe. Tonight’s not my night for looking up facts and figures (comment somewhere if you want me to work out the figures for this), but for many families, the costs of working do not stack up well against the costs of being on a benefit. In exchange for losing time with your family and working in soul-destroying jobs, there’s not much more money, if any at all! A solo mum on a Jobseeker benefit gets around $500/week including allowances (WINZ aren’t keen on divulging exactly how much without a long and painful search). Well, she can get $540 before tax on a minimum wage job, and she’s got to pay for childcare out of that.

When staying on a benefit makes more financial sense than going out working at minimum wage, we need to have a serious chat about our minimum wage. I’v heard it said that it’s not supposed to be an amount you can live on, because it’s for teenagers earning pocket money or people that just want a little extra cash. I’ve also heard said that if you don’t want to be paid so little, you should get a better job, with good overtones of condescension and a bit of paternalism. The truth is that there have to be people doing these crappy jobs, and looking down on these people makes you look a tad closed-minded.

So, less than $14 per hour. A family can’t live on that. It’s less than the bloody benefit after all’s said and done. It’s not a route to being lifted out of poverty, at all. The best way to get people out of poverty is not just jobs. It’s jobs that pay a living wage.


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