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Could Coronavirus Change How Teens Think About Poverty?

A whole new (jobless) world

Amy heard about her mum on the last day of school she had. That day—23 March—the news of an address by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began to spread.

New Zealand, Ardern had just announced, would soon move to “Level Four” of its COVID-19 alert system. Amy knew what that meant—for the next four weeks, New Zealand would be in total lockdown. By the coming Wednesday, at 11:59 pm, Amy and nearly five million other Kiwis have only been able to leave their homes from fresh air, exercise or to shop for food.

For Amy’s mum, though, it meant more than that. An early-childhood teacher, she knew she would lose her job.

By the time lockdown started on March 26, Amy’s mum wasn’t alone: another kid in Amy’s year, Dani, also had a parent out of work. For both of the two Kiwi 15-year-olds—middle-class, and from Cambridge, a relatively affluent town in New Zealand’s North Island—having a parent jobless was an uncanny, first-time experience.

“It’s a strange feeling having both parents at home, especially with one not working at all,” said Amy.

The news that her Dad no longer had a job reached Dani’s family “1-2 weeks before the lockdown,” she told Affinity. “Dad’s job was the main source of income for the family,” she said. “It’s the first time [this has happened].”

Amy and Dani are two of many previously well-off teenagers—from New Zealand and around the world—whose parents will have lost their jobs or are experiencing financial struggles for the first time thanks to coronavirus.

And that “many” is set to only get bigger. Shamubeel Eaqub, an economist with Sense Partners, used to look to the SARS epidemic as an indicator of how bad the economic shock of the coronavirus would be. Soon, that equivalent was out the window. “When the virus was first known I thought, ‘let’s look at Sars and multiply by six’. A week later, I thought, ‘let’s look at the last recession’. A week later, I thought, ‘let’s look at the Great Depression,'” he said. Other predictions are more conservative, but still involve unemployment likely rising above Global Financial Crisis levels of 6.7%.

New Zealand has managed to keep unemployment down so far – only 30,000 Kiwis have lost their jobs entirely. N.Z. has a “wage subsidy scheme,” which allocates government funds to businesses to help them pay their workers’ salaries. By making keeping their workers employed for 12 weeks a condition of taking up the subsidy, New Zealand has avoided an unemployment armageddon.

This is not the case overseas. Unprecedented unemployment is mirrored—in more severe terms—throughout the world. On 23 April, 26 million Americans had filed for unemployment, amounting to 15 percent of the U.S. workforce. And a backlog in processing applications may mean that the unemployment figure will rise even more in the coming weeks.

But there is, perhaps, a silver lining to all this, especially for today’s teens. What huge levels of unemployment do is expose a greater slice of the richer world to life on benefits, queues at food banks, or desperate loans from family. Amy and Dani, after all, had never had a parent lose their job before. They had not been struggling financially before.

And now, suddenly, they are. Dani’s family is trying to withdraw savings, and taking out loans from relatives. Life right now is “extremely stressful”, she said. Since 2014, the number of New Zealanders in benefit programs had stayed below 300,000. But by 25 April, 1.6 million people were seeking financial assistance under the Government’s wage subsidy scheme. That’s around 32% of the general population.

With so many previously financially stable households finding out for the first time what it’s like to live off Government benefits, the coronavirus is likely to change the way more of our future workforce thinks about poverty.

Will teens remember?

Teens, unlike many, are likely to live beyond the long economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis. But they will certainly remember it. And what teens from middle-class families like Amy and Dani will especially remember is what life in financial hardship was like. Two American political scientists, Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman, found in 2014 that “Political events experienced between the ages of 14 and 24 have roughly triple the [voting] impact of events experienced later in life.”

If their projection is right, current “mainstream unemployment” will cause the necessity of robust social welfare systems to linger with more and more teenagers into their voting years. Basically: if more people have experienced financial hardship when they were young, more people are likely to vote sympathetically towards those in poverty in the future. Asked whether she thought she’d remember her family’s current struggles, Dani said: “Definitely. I do have a different opinion on how to live with a certain amount of money … I feel more sympathetic for others without jobs.”

And a population more inclined to recognize the need for stronger welfare programs is a desperately needed thing.

“Welfare payments sit well below basic living costs in Aotearoa,” wrote Hannah McGowan, a Kiwi freelance writer, late last year. New Zealand’s disability-orientated ‘Supported Living Payment,’ for example, is $253.31 per week, net. By data tool Expatisan’s estimate, the average weekly cost of living in NZ is $913. “There are no luxuries,” McGowan followed up.

Coronavirus may also change how teens think about how the Government treats poverty.

Ideas previously viewed as hugely radical, and far off are now seen as necessary. While their parents may continue to lean largely in a conservative direction, teens who grew up at a time where the U.S. Government sent stimulus checks direct to its citizens won’t call Universal Basic Income so radical. “All sorts of hitherto taboo policies [have] become possible,” wrote The Guardian’s Larry Elliot.

In three years, Amy and Dani will be able to vote in New Zealand’s elections. Maybe, if they’re lucky, their families will be out of hardship by then. But a lot of New Zealanders won’t be. When middle-class teens like Amy and Dani step into the voting booth in the future, they’ll remember now and think carefully.

*Not their real names

Featured image via PxFuel

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Matteo Di Maio
Written By

I'm a Kiwi High School student and freelance journalist. I've written for the Independent, the New European and openDemocracy. I also write a column in my local paper. If you have a story you want teens to hear about, don't hesitate to get in touch at matteodimaio@protonmail.com or on Signal at +64 0204 164 5963. More of my work can be found here: https://matteo-dimaio.wixsite.com/home/about

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