'Poor brown kids are the target of a right-wing agenda' - researcher

By Will Trafford

National’s policy of 'sanctioning' benefits from youth not accepting employment is "misguided, simplistic, and lacking evidence" a leading academic says.

“To young people who don’t want to work: 'You might have a free ride under Labour but, under National, it ends',” Luxon told an audience of party faithful over the weekend.

Professor Terryann Clark (Ngāpuhi), a co-author of the Youth19 survey, which looks into why young people are neither employed nor in education, says National is over-inflating the issue to score political points.

“Unemployment is really low right now. So it seems like poor brown kids are the target of a right-wing agenda, and it's really misplaced,” Clark says.

"They are looking for a demon. It’s political opportunism. This is a super vulnerable group they’re having a go at."

Social issues

Clark says her research shows young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) are affected by social issues hampering their ability to get or hold down a job, more often than an unwillingness to work.

"These people have kai insecurity, have suffered abuse in many cases, and they often don’t have housing," Clark says.

About 70 per cent of those surveyed in Clark’s report have mental health issues, while almost 40 per cent don’t have proper access to kai.

"It’s hard to have aspirations and jobs when you’re in that kind of place. These people have lost their ability to dream about the future," she says.

Clark says National’s idea of mentorship is putting the horse before the cart, and shows ignorance by National policymakers of the complexity of social inequity.

“I guess the privilege of never having to worry about where you're going to stay and where your next food is coming from, or that what you have to offer the world is of value. That privilege is not experienced by many Māori,” Clark says.

'Push into poverty'

“The privilege at wealthy schools where you have every opportunity to do what you want to do - many tamariki from up here in Te Tai Tokerau, we don't have those same opportunities.”

Those in Clark’s research talked about a distrust of government institutions, with 30 per cent saying they’ve experienced ethnic discrimination by police.

"Humiliating and oppositional" was how they describe interactions with the Ministry of Social Development, which would oversee National’s programme.

If benefits were taken away, that would push people further into poverty and make them desperate, Clark says.

“The benefit sanctions are punitive, and will increase mental distress.

“If you increase hunger and homelessness, it will result in more crime, which is exactly what the platform says they're trying to address.”

Rejection of proven success

At 9.6 percent, data from Statistics New Zealand shows youth unemployment is trending down and returned to pre-covid levels in the last quarter of 2021.

It has dropped for a decade, from a high of 16.3 per cent in 2012, under the then National/ Māori Party coalition government.

A number of wraparound services are lowering youth unemployment rates according to Clark, and National’s proposal is a rejection of proven success metrics.

“There are already some really good programmes. In Whangārei there are youth services who run programmes for young people not employed or in education and training.”

“They've got services supporting mental health, making sure that they're well housed, getting them driver's licenses, helping them do their CVs. So actually, there are a lot of really good mentoring programs around.” Clark says.

Policy makers on both sides of the political aisles should look at the data and execute policies which effectively address the issues young people face, Clark says.

“Until young people have the basics sorted, mentoring around getting into work is just going to create another humiliating experience for young people where they fail.”

Public Interest Journalism, funded through NZ On Air