A new programme being rolled out in 111 schools teaches students how to manage money – and the difference between good and bad debt.
In Porirua East the houses look like Monopoly hotels. Two-storied, sturdy state houses that are more giant blocks than anything else. They’re good homes, with beautiful wooden floors (if you happened to lift the carpet up), three bedrooms, and one bathroom. Most are inhabited by beneficiaries – largely Māori and Pasifika families – in communities like Cannons Creek and Waitangirua.
There are no banks in either of these neighbouring suburbs, and one ATM apiece. No banks, no supermarkets, just a TAB and a lot of convenience stores. It’s the cruel irony of poverty. When convenience is most valuable, it comes at a steep cost.
Porirua College in Cannons Creek is the local school, decile one, where nine out of ten students are Māori or Pasifika. It sits atop a hill, making it a climb for students to get to the classroom. And it’s atop this hill where retirement commissioner – “the worst title for the best job – Diane Maxwell launched Sorted in Schools, New Zealand’s first nationwide financial capability programme embedded into the school curriculum.
Maxwell stands at the front of a classroom to speak to a dozen year nine students who are piloting the programme. Behind her, above the whiteboard, are definitions of language techniques. Hyperbole, idiom, assonance, anaphora. All things you were taught in school but have almost certainly forgotten by now. Maxwell has facilitated this programme in the hopes that it won’t join anaphora and idiom in the forgotten recesses of students’ brains, but live on in their decision making throughout their lives. “My job is to make sure that across your lifetimes, you manage your money so you can do the things you wanna do,” she tells them. “I’m not talking about yachts and Lamborghinis, I’m talking about managing your money so you can make choices so you can live the life you wanna live.”
“We’re living a lot longer than we used to. In New Zealand, people live to around 87-89. Your generation will live longer than that.”
I look around at the students, all of them brown. The only white faces in the room are the media and Maxwell. For New Zealanders born this year, European women might have a life expectancy of 85, but for Pasifika it’s 80, and for Māori it’s 78. I wonder if Maxwell knows who she’s talking to. She does, all too well.
“I know the numbers,” she says to me, when I ask her about her speech, “but I’m not going to stand up there and tell these kids that as well as everything else they’re already dealing with, they’re also expected to die earlier. My husband is Samoan, my son is Samoan, and I wouldn’t want him thinking about that.”
Instead, Maxwell wants these kids to think about money. Not necessarily how to get it, but how to keep it. Where a European approach to financial literacy would involve tips on how to save money individually and where you personally can cut costs – at least that’s what I was taught – Sorted in Schools aims to work with the realities of the students involved. Namely, debt.
Pasifika and Māori are the highest borrowers when it comes to personal loans, particularly instant finance. In the city centre of Porirua there are just as many payday lenders (on-the-spot loans with exorbitant interest rates) as there are banks. Debt, big and small, is an everyday reality for most families in Porirua and to ignore that aspect when teaching kids about money is wilful ignorant.
“A lot of these kids will encounter debt at some point in their lives, probably much sooner than you’d expect,” says Maxwell. “If they can manage that debt between the ages of 16 and 24, if they can manage their credit rating…part of the problem we see is everyone in a family burning through their credit rating and then the responsibility of borrowing falls to the youngest.”
For Maxwell, the goal is to simply educate students on how credit and debt works so that they don’t find themselves on a slippery slope of debt while still in their teens.
“Something like a Vodafone mobile phone bill can mess up your credit rating. And the problem with that is if you lose access to mainstream credit…mainstream credit is much cheaper than payday lender credit. If you can keep it so they can still access credit at 11% [interest], it’s much better than if people lose access to that and they’ve got to borrow at 25, 30%. Then they miss a payment and the amount goes up and they’re in more trouble. It’s so hard to get out once that happens.”
But it’s not just bad credit that drives people to payday lenders. As Damon Salesa wrote in his book Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures, the steady shift of the big banks from personalised service to online operations has added yet another barrier to Pasifika engaging in productive debt.
“The difference with those instant finance places is they’re really kind and welcoming,” says Maxwell. “Some people think of the walk into a bank as a walk of shame. They might have just come from work, might be in overalls, and they feel like they’re being judged all the way up to the desk.”
Being nervous in a bank can sound ridiculous to those who’ve grown up with multiple bank accounts and have “may I speak to the manager” hairstyles, but when English is a second language and every pamphlet has a full page of fine print, entering a bank is like going through customs. You’re pretty sure you’re fine but you’re still nervous about anyone asking you questions. This lack of accessibility, both in language and in knowledge around the lending rights makes it that much easier for payday lenders and predatory services to profit off the vulnerable.
With Sorted in Schools accepting this reality and working within it, the programme looks to be a long overdue addition to the school curriculum. And with kura Māori resources included, the historical implications of colonisation on the financial landscape for Māori is contextualised within the learning. Marina Kawe-Peautolu (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Kahungunu) has been advising on the kura Māori approach and knows that today’s young Māori are in line for a lot of action in the business world.
“We’ve got to take into consideration the whole post-settlement landscape that iwi Māori are in at the moment and how do we prepare our rangatahi for that space going forward,” she says. “When it comes to succession, what can we implement in this resource that’s gonna help prepare them for some of those things.”
But while the programme looks to be a much-needed resource, it’s still a pilot, and feedback around cultural relevance is welcomed, even by those who helped build it. “There’s some things around tangihanga but that will probably feature a lot more in the Kura Māori programme. We need to get that going across both programmes because majority of Māori students are in mainstream education.”
Kawe-Peautolu and Maxwell agree that the most important thing Sorted in Schools can do is give students confidence through knowledge.
“If we get through the foundational subjects for our kids, that creates a confidence, an awareness, an understanding,” says Kawe-Peautolu. And that can lead on to better preparing them for those things like asset management and moving into the kind of corporate space for iwi Māori. Right now there’s a really limited resource and we know that the majority of people in that space are getting older and are needing to look into succession plans.”
“Part of it is simply knowledge but actually a lot of it is confidence,” adds Maxwell. “It’s about knowing how the system works and knowing that the system won’t always beat you.”
The students are still working through the programme on laptops and iPads. They’re writing about how their culture and family affects their values. Almost every student has written something about wanting to get a job so they can help their family. There’s a lot of ‘we’ in their writing and in their conversations. “We sometimes don’t have enough”, “we sometimes use our savings when the car breaks down”, “we help out our cousins sometimes”.
When I leave the classroom, I walk by the language techniques again. “Anaphora: the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.” Maybe this time I’ll remember it.