Pacific Families and Problem Debt

Pacific families and problem debt (pdf)
01 Nov 2012

This research looks at how Pacific families manage their finances. The information can be used by government and providers as they design future initiatives with Pacific families.

Problem debt is one symptom of financial hardship, and is a significant barrier to families enjoying a meaningful, rewarding life. Problem debt is defined as ‘unmanageable debt leading to financial strain.

The research method was data drawn from a combination of literature reviews, interviews with individuals and focus groups, case studies, and drew on other pacific research carried out by the Commission. This culminated into one report, presented in three sections:

  • Summary Report: This report summarises the environmental scan, the research report, and other research undertaken by the Commission.
  • Environmental Scan: This report found that Pacific people are more vulnerable to problem debt, but that there is little known about how Pacific families manage their finances.
  • Research Report: This study addresses the knowledge gaps in the environmental scan, and was undertaken by the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs.


In 2010 the Families Commission prepared an environmental scan report: Pacific Families and Problem Debt – Environmental Scan. This report found that Pacific peoples are more vulnerable to problem debt, but that there was little known about how Pacific families manage their finances. In 2011 the Families Commission initiated a study to address these knowledge gaps.

This further research was undertaken with the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs to:

  • identify promising interventions, services, practices and opportunities for further development to enable Pacific families to address or prevent problem debt and achieve their financial goals
  • broaden the currently limited knowledge base on Pacific peoples’ knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviour concerning financial decision-making to inform a wider programme of research on Pacific attitudes towards problem debt.

The study includes a concise review of current literature and interviews with service providers and two focus groups with community informants in South Auckland. The issues discussed in the interviews were:

  • the underlying causes of Pacific debt
  • cultural practices that might contribute to the tendency to get into problem debt
  • the services available to assist Pacific peoples with problem debt
  • how agencies work with Pacific peoples who are in debt
  • possible community and policy responses to help Pacific peoples avoid problem debt.

This report also includes summarised information from the Families Commission research report One Step at a Time: Supporting families and whänau in financial hardship (February 2012). The report explores how culture, early intervention and financial knowledge and skills play a role in financial hardship. A case-study approach was used, and we interviewed families associated with five very different community organisations. Three of these organisations worked with Pacific families: the Eternal Christian Fellowship (Auckland), Good Cents (Wesley Community Action initiative – Porirua) and Granger Grove (Anglican Trust for Women and Children – Auckland). In addition we have drawn on information we gathered at the i3 conference held by the Dream Centre in October 2011, which focused on building wealth in Pacific communities. This was inspired by the Commission’s 50 Key Thinkers forum (Families Commission 2011). The research provides evidence about how Pacific families manage their finances, and can be used by government and providers as they design future initiatives with Pacific families.

Key Results

Effective ways of working with Pacific families to move them out of hardship

  • Providing education and training – targeted financial literacy and numeracy training to help families take the lead in managing their immediate issues and planning for the future.
  • Whole-family focus – recognising that debt is an issue that involves the whole family. To be effective, any intervention should recognise the critical role of Pacific women in managing the family finances.
  • Awareness-raising – helping new migrants to learn about money management in a New Zealand context. Checking cross-cultural understanding is important.
  • Leadership from the church and traditional leaders (for example, matai, elders) – church and traditional leaders are role models who could assist in raising awareness about financial issues and strategies. Pacific churches are well positioned to lead initiatives and have a special role in encouraging families to live within their means and give only what they can afford.
  • Identifying alternative ways of doing things – better budgeting, ways of reducing costs and inkind rather than financial contributions to community or church events.
  • Service providers – developing services that have Pacific workers with appropriate language skills to ensure that support is provided early and in culturally appropriate ways.
  • Raising awareness of financial supports available – making sure families are aware of government support.
  • Revisiting access to easy credit and finance – examining high interest rates and loans to beneficiaries, for example, and providing better information and support for those seeking loans, including plain-language contracts.

This research has already been made available to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and key messages from our financial hardship work were shared at last year’s financial summit.

Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018