Does the ‘Kiwi Dream’ still exist for Pasifika Peoples?

Members of Auckland’s Tongan Older Persons Group. Pacific Islanders make up approximately 20% of the city’s population. Photograph: Eleanor Ainge Roy

Much like in the United States, the concept of the “Kiwi Dream” was born out of the idea that a growing economy and strong work ethic could provide a platform for social and economic mobility, regardless of one’s background. For many Kiwis, this dream manifested itself in the idea of working a middle-class job, owning a home, a car, and having several children. But New Zealand is now finding itself at a crossroads with respect to population growth, immigration, and long-term livability. Home ownership in many of New Zealand’s urban centers is becoming more and more out of reach for local residents, contributing to sky-high rents and lower levels of home ownership across the country. Last year, Auckland tied Toronto as the world’s sixth least affordable city, with houses costing on average ten times the median income. Christchurch and Wellington, New Zealand’s second and third largest housing markets, are also ranked as “severely unaffordable” by Demographia International’s Annual Housing Affordability Survey.

This year, New Zealand is expected to hit the major population milestone of 5 million people. While New Zealand ranks 126th worldwide in population (between Central African Republic and Mauritania), the country’s population growth has occurred at a much faster rate than ever before witnessed. The lion’s share of this growth is the result of increased immigration, primarily from China, India, and the Philippines. New Zealand now has one of the highest net migration rates of any OECD country. Kiwis with Pacific heritage (excluding Māori) are also expected to experience record population growth, topping 650,000 this year. With the country experiencing major growing pains as it reaches a new population milestone, one must wonder how Pacific Islander (henceforth referred to as Pasifika) populations are faring under these changing circumstances.

Auckland is commonly touted as the largest Polynesian city in the world. Over 200,000 Pasifika peoples call Auckland home, making up nearly 20% of the entire city’s population. Pasifika Kiwis have been especially impacted by the City of Auckland’s inability to keep up with rapid growth and infrastructure expansion. Auckland’s housing shortage and sky high rents have led to overcrowding in Pasifika neighborhoods, where incomes tend to be lower overall. Recent immigrants from Pacific Island states often find themselves living with family members for extended periods of time, putting further strain on existing housing infrastructure. Additionally, informal housing has started popping up around the city, with reports of hundreds living in garages, tents, and shipping containers to cut the high cost of living. 1 in 100 New Zealanders is considered housing insecure or homeless. Even in the case that funds are available for home ownership, the New Zealand government banned the sale of homes to foreign buyers back in 2018 with the aim of reducing foreign real estate speculation.

The Pasifika population is also especially young, with a median age of just 22.6 years. Unemployed youth – many of whom immigrated without marketable job skills – have put additional strain on social services and public housing. The median income for Pasifika Aucklanders is NZD $18,900 (USD $11,834.05) a year – NZD $10,000 less than other Aucklanders. The lack of opportunity for many Pasifika Kiwis has led many into predatory credit schemes, further exacerbating the cycle of poverty in communities.

Despite efforts by the New Zealand government to reduce levels of poverty and income insecurity across the country, levels of poverty among Pasifika women has continued to rise. Pasifika women, in particular, have long faced job discrimination, unequal pay, and have felt the effects of systematic racist policies that have reduced their ability to reach the economic prosperity realized by other Kiwis. Similarly, the New Zealand Education Ministry also published a report that found that Māori and Pasifika students were much more likely to be the targets of ethnicity-related discrimination from teachers compared to their fellow students.

Overall, the country has witnessed major economic growth over the last five years. However, New Zealand struggles to maintain pace with a growing population and lack of affordable housing and high paying jobs. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has focused part of her platform on reducing the amount of net migration to New Zealand to cool economic and class tensions. Her efforts stress the importance of trying to first hire native Kiwis before resulting to the further issuance of work visas. As a result, tightened immigration restrictions have been put into place, sharply decreasing the amount of migrants entering the country. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) forecasted that annual net immigration of working-age people will fall from a mid-2017 peak of 72,400 to 29,000 in 2021. These policies have resulted in labor shortages in major industries across the country, including hospitality and agriculture. The lack of labor created enough of an economic impact that the RBNZ reduced interest rates in 2019. Businesses across the country struggle to find people to fill roles while visa applicants wait with uncertainty as their visa application makes it through the notoriously slow and non-transparent application system. The Pacific Quota System, in particular, has put a squeeze on the amount of Pasifika people allowed into the country each year. In 2017, 17,000 Samoans applied for just 1,100 visas at the same time that thousands of jobs go unfilled across the country.

New Zealand’s push for tightened immigration procedures comes at a time when Pacific migration is likely to be at an all-time high. Rising sea levels and fresh water contamination is likely to drive people from Pacific Island States sooner than expected. The Kiwi Dream, as it was once known, may now be a concept of the past, especially for Pasifika peoples. Tightened immigration, racial discrimination, and economic challenges may stand in the way of thousands of people who hope to seek refuge in New Zealand in the wake of increasing uninhabitability in Pacific States. Even if they are able to overcome the cumbersome process of obtaining a New Zealand visa, many challenges lie ahead for fully integrating Pasifika peoples into Kiwi society.

Andrew Robison is second-year graduate student in the Master of Global Policy Studies program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. His academic interests focus on global environmental challenges, the politics of energy transition, and the environmental impacts of the global waste stream. He previously graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Marketing and International Business. Andrew currently works as a graduate research assistant at the LBJ School, studying the political and environmental implications of rising oil and gas production in the United States.

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