Families struggling: agencies

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With less than a month to go before the general election on September 23, The Star is launching a series of investigations into some of the “big issues” facing New Zealanders. We start this week with the issue of child poverty, talking with Dunedin social agencies, advocates and researchers. Our series will continue in the coming weeks with a focus on health and disability, housing and the environment.

Many families are struggling on “woefully inadequate” incomes as the significant issue of child poverty continues to grow and affect Dunedin children, social agencies say.

Dunedin social agencies battling growing pressure on their services are urging those vying to become the next government to make combating child poverty a priority.

Anglican Family Care (AFC) director Nicky Taylor said staff encountered many examples of child poverty, and saw children going without the necessities of life – adequate food, housing, medical care and clothing and the opportunity to reach their potential.

Each month, AFC staff had about 2000 direct contacts with vulnerable people in Dunedin and wider Otago, and made more than 580 home visits, offering intensive one-on-one Family Start interventions, Mrs Taylor said.

The increasing complexity of issues for families was a growing concern.

“Not only have we seen a 30% increase in referrals in the past 12 months, but the risk factors have also increased.”

Presbyterian Support Otago Family Works practice manager Melanie McNatty said the organisation had worked with 3879 clients in Dunedin and surrounding areas in the last financial year.

This resulted in 12,904 client contacts for the year – directly associated with poverty-related issues.

Both agencies identified the lack of affordable quality housing as a growing problem in Dunedin, which was resulting in more of the “working poor” seeking help.

Ms McNatty said 68% of Family Works clients were on some type of benefit, while 32% were working.

“For our contact with families, we see a range of pressing issues, including affordable, safe and warm housing, affordable access to health services and meeting basic living costs,” she said.

“We are also seeing more parents who are struggling with managing children who have high anxiety levels.”

Mrs Taylor said other pressing issues for families included access to mental health services and health care, transport and even the cost of internet and phone.

“Also, they are facing the attitudes and judgement of the wider community,” she said.

The pressure to meet the needs of families was high, and AFC’s home-based social work service had a waiting list of more than 20 families, she said.

“The vast majority of these families have urgent needs .. [including] significant concern around children’s social, health and welfare situation.”

PSO chief executive Gillian Bremner said a major issue facing families in poverty was high levels of debt and no hope, due to inadequate income.

“Benefit levels are woefully inadequate and seem to have been deliberately kept low as a deterrent,” Mrs Bremner said.

There was much discussion around a universal basic income for over-65s that was not asset-tested, while many over-65s drew a pension while earning a full-time wage.

“How is it then, that those under 65 on other benefits who try to improve their circumstances with a few hours’ work find that their benefit is abated .. and they end up no better off?” she said.

“Investing in those struggling to get ahead would benefit us all.”