The world might be coming out of recession, but it’s leaving some people behind, like flotsam on the beach.
And not just people on fixed incomes – pensioners and state beneficiaries – are affected. It’s also the people who have been working, raising a family, paying their mortgage and generally treading water. As prices for housing, power and food rise, they all are finding it harder to get by. For working people, when the job that supported them is lost, they are stranded.
These are the people who are calling the Citizens Advice Bureau, Budget Advisory Services and Napier Family Centre in greater numbers. They also are lining up at food banks, which are seeing a major increase in demand.
To be sure, MSD offers help with the costs of housing, working, health, study, even funeral costs. In emergencies, MSD provides special needs grants, temporary additional support, recoverable assistance payment and advance payment of benefits … all geared to help recipients pay for such things as emergency medical and dental care, food and bedding, power reconnection fees and even hire purchase, debt and loan repayments. The MSD’s hardship assistance can be obtained in 24 hours.
So what’s the problem?
First, according to Chris Morgan of the Salvation Army, increases in benefits are not keeping pace with increases in costs of food, utilities, housing and even firewood. The price of food alone is up about 12% over the past couple of years and the government’s increase in GST is still to come.
Second, there are impediments to getting help. One is pride: when you’ve been self-sustaining, it’s hard to apply for a benefit. And benefit administrators don’t always tell applicants about all the benefits for which they might be eligible.
The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in Hastings does. They field all kinds of questions and respond with information, everything from how to cook to the ins and outs of bankruptcy. It’s a confidential service and you can speak to them anonymously.
Sandra Giffkin, the CAB coordinator in Hastings, said, “Three years ago we had very simple bad debt problems. We’re starting to get much more complex issues: not just violence but drugs and alcohol and violence and mental health issues altogether. It has all compounded over time. Most who ask for help are at the lower income level, but others are just keeping their heads above water. People have way overcommitted themselves at all economic levels. And now seasonal work is ending and people are calling in to say they’ve lost their jobs.”
Napier’s People’s Advocacy Society helps people get the public benefits to which they are entitled. Most of their clients are on benefits already, said Carol Olsen, one of three volunteers who work with up to 2,500 clients a year. Olsen estimates the Society is seeing about an 80% increase in people experiencing difficulties. “Some have lost employment and some have been on benefits for a while, but it’s getting harder to make ends meet,” Olsen said.
The volunteers often act as advocates for their clients when they go to the MSD’s Work and Income (WINZ) offices to apply for benefits. The caseworkers at WINZ “are supposed to explain to people what they’re entitled to, but it doesn’t always happen,” Olsen said.
Some of the applicants for food parcels at the Salvation Army in Hastings have used up all their entitlements from WINZ before the end of the month and simply “don’t have anything more,” said Kathy Willers. Requests for help have risen almost 100 percent over the past year, she said. “People who are laid off or working part-time aren’t coping with the cost of living…people who, through no fault of their own, are struggling.”
“We’re seeing more people who could manage previously but have lost their job, usually a long-term job,” said Greta Wham, who has been with the service for more than two decades. “They’re devastated by it. Their income might be fully committed and suddenly they can’t meet these commitments.”
The Napier Family Centre offers budgeting, counselling and a family support service with teams of social and youth workers. All have substantial increases in clientele over last year. “We try to have no barriers to entry,” said Roydon Day, CEO. They tell their clients about entitlements and will go with them to WINZ to sign up for benefits. Three quarters of their clients are solo parents, usually mothers with young children. Most rent rather than own their home.
Funding for these organisations can include contracts with the MSD and grants from the Hastings and Napier Councils. Naturally they would welcome more volunteers and more funding to hire more staff to meet the growing demand for their services.
Should local government do more to help struggling families in their communities? “The issue for us is what level of social responsibility to fund and what are ratepayers comfortable with,” said Hastings Councillor Cynthia Bowers.
“Councils don’t have unlimited funds to solve everybody’s problems,” agrees Napier Councillor Maxine Boag. “Council responsibility is limited; it’s up to the ratepayer.”
Want to help?
“The hardest thing is for people to admit they have a problem,” says Sandra Giffkin of the Citizens Advice Bureau in Hastings. “They rob Peter to pay Paul and then the bailiff turns up and they have to confront their problem. Getting help sooner would be to their benefit. If only they would talk to us before the bailiff arrives.”
Greta Wham of the Budget Advice Service agrees. People wait until desperation sets in before calling for help. “We can’t work miracles.”
So if you or someone you know is having a hard time financially, give them these phone numbers:
CITIZENS ADVICE BUREAU
Hastings: 878 0525
Napier: 835 9664
Call free: 0800 367 222
BUDGET ADVICE SERVICES
Napier: 835 5344
Hastings: 878 0530
Central Hawkes Bay: 858 8196
Also the Napier Family Centre: 843 7280
People’s Advocacy Society
Napier: 834 0206