Census data show a geographical and rural–urban divide in Wairarapa. After a long period of decline, the region’s population stabilised in the early 2000s, then grew by 5% between 2006 and 2013. The population had grown in the south, but continued to decline in the north. Carterton, South Wairarapa and Masterton districts grew by 15%, 7% and 3% respectively in this period. Northern Wairarapa declined by 4%.
The fall is probably the result of rationalisation in the farming sector. The rise is largely due to growth in lifestyle blocks, viticulture and timber processing.
The rural–urban divide is more complex. In 2013, 29% of the region’s population was rural (double the national proportion of 14%). Farming and fishing were the main rural occupations. In the towns, service and sales workers predominated. Compared to town dwellers, rural people were younger, better educated, and had higher incomes and lower unemployment. They were more likely to be non-Māori, and to live in two-parent families with children.
Children at risk
Statistics in 2004 showed that Wairarapa children were twice as likely to be hospitalised for accidental burns and poisoning as other New Zealand children. Teenage pregnancy rates were higher than elsewhere, and 15- to 24-year-olds were dying in car accidents at a rate 40% above the national average.
This contrast is due to a number of factors. Since the 1840s Wairarapa’s wealth has been made on the land. Towns have provided rural workers in economic good times and taken them back in bad. For low-income earners, single-parent families, and beneficiaries, life is often easier in towns, where support and social services are within reach. Retired people from the country also often move into town.
Conversely, farmers have long been high earners, and lifestylers also tend to have higher incomes and education levels.
A ‘dark underbelly’
Wairarapa’s social divide was highlighted in the 1990s and early 2000s when the towns experienced a series of murders, often of children. These revealed deep social problems within its urban underclass.
In response to this violence, Wairarapa MP Georgina Beyer spoke of a ‘dark underbelly’ of abuse in the region. Families were growing up accustomed to violence and mistreatment that was often inflamed by drug and alcohol abuse. Edwin Perry, a spokesperson for the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, thought problems among Māori stemmed from urbanisation and the breakdown of whānau (family) support.
Working against violence
In the early 2000s, Masterton mayor Bob Francis launched the Violence Free Wairarapa campaign. A task force was set up to help co-ordinate social agencies working with at-risk families. Ten years later, the number of family violence incidents being reported in Wairarapa was declining, despite a national trend in the opposite direction