The immediate response to this title for most parents would be “but families are constantly being challenged!” That probably applies more today than it has for a long time, because challenges are being faced on so many fronts.
There are some perennial ones: toddler temper tantrums, parental sleep deprivation, endless childhood illnesses (usually shared with mum and/or dad), food fads, teenage angst, boyfriend/girlfriend woes that rark up the whole family… the list goes on and on, and most of us grind our teeth and muddle though. Sometimes we can even laugh about them, usually much later.
But many families today are facing problems that would have been unthinkable even thirty years ago. Those of us over the age of fifty grew up in a world where you went to the local school, which by and large was pretty much as good as anyone else’s local school and where most kids had pretty ordinary backgrounds. There were a few really well-off ones who had occasional overseas trips or whose family owned a flasher house than the rest of us, and equally, there weren’t too many obviously struggling. Since Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of all Budgets” in 1991, reality has become a lot nastier for a lot of New Zealand families, and some have never recovered from the blows they were dealt from the 1990s onwards.
New Zealand’s fascination with the ‘free market’ (often termed neoliberalism) has seen us take apart the welfare systems we so proudly led the way with back in the 1930s and governments have adopted policies that begin to seem somewhat Dickensian – largely centred around the idea that the poor must be so because they are undeserving, lazy, feckless, and hopeless with money, and they therefore need to be made really uncomfortable in order to force them to get off their backsides and get a job. The reality, recounted by many people at their wits end, is quite different. Yes, there are people who are lazy, feckless and hopeless with money. They’re a small proportion and they’ve always existed. But a few decades back, we didn’t punish their kids for it. In an attempt to stop the ‘bludgers’ we seem to have lost all sense of perspective, and most of our empathy as well.
When a single mum, working fulltime on minimum wage as a caregiver in an old folk’s home, often doing over fifty hours spread over every day of the week, can’t pay for her son’s school sports costs, often can’t put food on the table because she’s paying so much rent on an overpriced house, and had to give up her attempt to train as a nurse and thereby better herself because she couldn’t afford the fees, New Zealand families are certainly facing some challenges. That account, by the way, is true and was presented by the mum concerned to a Living Wage Aotearoa Movement meeting held in Palmerston North in May this year. She doesn’t sound like someone who isn’t trying – she sounds like someone who’s in despair.
One of the biggest challenges families are facing is the one that government agencies seem unable to see, or unwilling to admit to: they are trying to force people to find jobs that aren’t there. Going backwards to the childhoods that most of our legislators grew up in (the ones with enough food, enough money to live on from one person’s wage, house ownership a reality for most, and free tertiary education), there were also a lot of basic jobs that have now completely disappeared. Increased automation did for a lot of them, and globalisation and ‘free trade’ killed off a lot more.
Even worse than that, for many families, is the fact that our children are growing up faced with huge loans that will cripple their lives, in order to get qualifications that are often not going to lead to jobs (because jobs are not guaranteed any more) or that were once provided for free, on the job (they were called apprenticeships). They are emerging into a world that offers them wages they can’t live on, if they can even find a job, and employers who offer them zero hour contracts, or very similar things painted to look ever so slightly better. These kids have very little chance of ever establishing a family life at all, and you as their parents may feel justifiably worried that you may never have grandchildren, because your kids won’t be able to afford to have any for you. Other families are being torn apart because their children have to go overseas to find work – and in many cases can’t afford to come home because of the huge interest bills they face on their student loans. The latest move is to threaten returnees with prosecution and detention if they try to leave the country again with unpaid loans. Already young New Zealanders overseas are declaring bankruptcy to escape from situations like this.
In an attempt to define the price of everything, and to hold everyone accountable for anything we can think of, we’ve lost the plot. How can it be better to have children succumbing to third-world diseases like rheumatic fever – things that are known to be diseases of poverty and which cause huge damage in later life – than to maintain a living standard that allows everyone to be a functioning member of society? If we want to reduce our crime rates and increase our productivity, we need to pay attention to helping families, not beating them up. The Finnish government provides every newborn baby with a survival kit – a padded box to sleep in, basic clothing and bedding – as a right, because they believe every child should have a good start in life. Recently, charitable groups have started to do similar things here – out of desperation. Yes, families are facing challenges, and one of the biggest is getting our politicians to recognise that the path we’ve been on for the last thirty years might not be the right one.