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New Zealand needs strong, sturdy ladders, ones that let us all climb safely

Written by Stacey Shortall

The date is set. 19 September 2020 will be New Zealand’s Election Day. The campaigns for our votes are underway. Key messages are being tested. Slogans are being developed. Candidates are being considered.

In the midst of all this - perhaps, admittedly, somewhat oddly at first blush - I started thinking about ladders. Before you stop reading, stay with me for a moment.

For as the paint starts to dry on fresh electioneering billboards, ladders will come out to affix them to buildings and hoardings around our country. Strong, sturdy ladders. The type that let people safely climb high - confident that they can complete the task at hand.

Chances are that no one uses a really rickety ladder to affix election billboards and hoardings. Or one missing rungs. I likewise cannot imagine anyone is planning to use a ladder where the rungs are spread so wide that it is difficult to climb them. All these types of ladders are so obviously dangerous that I hope few of us would even find them in our sheds these days.

That’s the thing about ladders. To be useful, they need to be usable. Simple to erect. Easy to climb. Stable. Secure. Durable.

Ladders also need to be usable by a wide variety of individuals - tradespeople, stockists, firefighters, other emergency responders, actually all of us. They need to be transportable and transferable. Because, in many ways, ladders are essential. Without a ladder, we end up sitting, perhaps a little fearfully, in darkness at night because that lightbulb was not replaced. We become frustrated at being unable to dislodge that rugby ball from the neighbouring house’s roof. We are annoyed at being unable to finish painting that last remaining high weatherboard on the house.

A ladder analogy is often used by New Zealand politicians around election time when they talk about economic mobility and moving people out of poverty. We are encouraged to see a ladder of opportunity, a ladder of success, or sometimes even a ladder of prosperity.

It’s a good analogy. We all like the idea of seeing people moving forwards and upwards towards better outcomes. We like the thought that a ladder can provide a way for any New Zealander to improve her or his situation. We generally support the notion that some of us facing circumstances such as disabilities or vulnerabilities may need extra help up some rungs.

But the problem is that the growing inequality gap in our country between those of us who are rich and those of us who are poor stretches the ladder. It means that children born into poorer circumstances have further to climb to just reach the rungs where children born into richer circumstances get to start. Then there is all the additional climbing required to advance up the ladder. But that’s not the only problem.

From education opportunities, to job prospects, to health risks, to risks of state intervention in homes, to community safety, the distance between the rungs on New Zealand’s ladder seems to vary depending on whether the climber - or her/his family - is rich or poor.

These are the reminders in daily lives of how the wealth gap between rich and poor New Zealanders can make for an easier or tougher climb up the ladder. By way of just a few examples, there are now people in our county for whom it seems further to climb from the rung of housing renter to the one of home owner. Those for whom it feels harder to climb from the rung of self-employment to the one of business employer. Those for whom it looks tougher now to climb from the rung of uneducated to meaningfully employed.

For some, rungs even appear to be missing from the ladder. There are presently New Zealand children who we expect to climb a ladder missing rungs that their counterparts elsewhere can readily access - rungs that help teach key life lessons like commitment, teamwork and discipline. Take for example, those children who live in communities where there is no after-school sport available or where there is no positive mentoring opportunity in existence.

For others, additional rungs seem to have been added to the ladder - narrowing the gaps in-between. Tutors, extra coaching, more gear, spare cash all provide those extra rungs that protect against someone mis-stepping or falling back a full rung.

The rubber feet on our ladder also seem worn in places causing it to sometimes shift or even slip. A stable location - a home - to erect the ladder is key. Otherwise it is shaky and prone to collapse. But many New Zealand families do not live in their own homes. They squeeze into over-crowded houses with other families. They surf couches and stay overnight wherever they can. Some sleep in cars with their children. Others live in emergency motels. Some others cannot sleep given the violent noises through the walls, or in their rooms . Hardly places where it is easy to mount, let alone climb, a ladder to trust.

Government policies and individual practices that address underlying social issues are crucial to securing our ladder, managing its height and closing the distance between rungs. Good health, stable housing, quality education and safe communities really matter. They let more people use the ladder.

To any of us who see poverty, education, housing, policing and health as separate election issues, I suggest we need to remember that they all build and support the ladder that leads to better lives. Improvement in one without the others is insufficient. A durable, stable ladder that any of us can climb helps all of us succeed. For I believe most New Zealanders would rather receive a hand-up the ladder than a hand-out. I also believe most New Zealanders would rather we invest our tax money in hand-ups instead of hand-outs.

So as the politicians roll out the ladder analogy as part of campaigns in advance of 19 September 2020, I suggest we focus on just that - the ladder. Just as we would fix or replace the damaged ladder in our sheds, let us ask more of our politicians to get behind initiatives and policies that will better our country’s ladder of opportunity or success or prosperity or whatever the political party communications’ advisors call it.

Because, if we get the ladder upright, secure and fair, the more New Zealanders - from all very different starting points on the ladder - we get climbing it towards improved outcomes and reaching the top. That ladder is one that better supports us all - including those of us who sit high up.



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