As Welfare Shrinks, Maoris Try to Help Themselves


FOR thousands of years the Kaumatua - the Maori elders - have met to solve problems. Now, the elders are meeting again to try to solve a modern-day New Zealand problem: how to make up for cutbacks in government services.

The elders hope to provide education, health, and counseling services themselves. Eventually, they might set up a meat or fish processing plant to provide ongoing funding for their activities.

"What we are seeing is a great need for those who can meet the needs of our people," says Taina Waipouri, one of the Kaumatua.

There is no question, the needs of the people around Whakapara, about a three hour drive north of Auckland, are great. The Maori unemployment rate is about 40 percent, the New Zealand employment service in Whangarei estimates. As a result, many Maori families survive by living on welfare.

However, these benefits may be inadequate, some local social workers say. Most overseas countries figure 25 percent of a welfare check should go to food. New Zealand estimates 33 percent should be used for food. "Once you take that out of balance other problems increase," says a local social worker.

One of the other problems in this region is crime. National statistics indicate crime is on the rise nationally but especially among Maoris, who have a disproportionate number of people in jail. "Dishonesty offenses such as shoplifting or burglary have gone up sharply," says Senior Sergeant Pat Coghlan in Whangarei. In northern New Zealand, the seizure of marijuana plants is soaring, up 46 percent this year compared to 1990. The plants are now considered a cash crop, with the drug sold in Auckland or oth er New Zealand cities. Many local youths smoke the weed.

To try to counter these trends, the Maori elders are running special services for the young, including an anger-management program to teach Maori males how to resolve conflict without violence and special classes to help underperforming youths in school. There are also programs to teach Maoris how to avoid getting deeply into debt, and classes to help Maoris formulate better diets and healthier lifestyles. Almost all of the effort will be run by volunteers with only NZ$17,000 (New Zealand; US$9,350) in f unding from the government.

The programs also "will have a Maori perspective," says Ani Waipouri, a Maori social worker. This means a greater emphasis on spiritual and family values. Maori families are large extended groups. "The idea is to share the responsibility," says a local social worker. This concept is carried through to the Marae, where the elders meet. Almost anything can be said on the floor of the structure and it will not be used outside. Problems can be aired and the whole Marae takes responsibility. Thus, if a child is truant, the whole group tries to find solutions. It's a centuries old way to solve problems in a modern society.

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