Minding Gaps & Inconvenient Truths: Poverty in NZ

Building on statistics showing the wealthiest 10% of Kiwis own 60% of the wealth compared with the poorest 40% owning only 3% political commentator Duncan Garner has offered an opinion on Poverty in New Zealand  (Read it here)

Now I have spent the vast majority of my life in poverty – a card carrying member of the Underclass.  Even a hard fought uni degree, post grad qualifications, and professional kudos couldn’t erode the scars and debts of my upbringing.  I still live in the old neighborhood, and my friends and family still struggle alongside me.  So lets see what Duncan has to say about us.

Duncan’s central theme is that John Key once campaigned on addressing poverty, and has failed to do so.  Duncan throws a cheeky side shot towards Andrew Little and Labour claiming they cant do it either, before laying down the challenge for Key to get back on track.

Duncan touches on the good things this Government is doing for the poor

Yes, this Government has done some good things for the poor: they’ve raised benefit levels, got more children into early childhood education and they are redesigning the broken Child, Youth and Family model.

From Friday, paid parental leave went up by $10 a week,  and there’s more free healthcare for children.

What Duncan fails to note is that the benefit levels were in fact intentionally set below the levels needed to survive by a former National Government as an incentive to force people into work (that wasn’t there).  So in fact the benefit increase is just addressing a great wrong done 20 years prior at a rate that makes no material difference at all.

The increase in Early Childhood Education is good, but again it’s only old idea that is centered on that past philosophy to push lazy parents into work.

Increasing paid parental leave is a farce given Mr English’s recent poorly informed veto of a more substantial and meaningful increase.

Claiming free health care for children as a bonus is extremely concerning, shouldn’t healthcare access for children be a given right instead of something to politically crow about?

And lastly the reference to Child Youth and Family reforms as helping the poor runs in complete contrast to the EAP report that barely mentions poverty at all.

Missing is the refusal by that current Government to support a living wage, refusal  to accept that the 90 day bill has created work insecurity, and refusal to understand that falling benefits numbers does not connect to workforce engagement.

Duncan is right when he mentions the ‘cherry picking’ of stats, but lets not translate that into a cherry picking of reported facts.

To his credit Duncan does point out what we can all see, the growing visibility of extreme poverty in the streets,  A quick head count of the homeless people in the streets that Duncan frequents speaks volumes.  As does the reality that social housing in New Zealand is utterly unable to meet the growing need.

Less helpful is the ethnic break down on inequality.  I do get that in the big picture the numbers might fall this way, but take a wander through the poorest neighborhoods and you will find a cross section of all demographics.  Up north the loading is strongly geared towards an over-representation of Maori/Pacific, but head into the poorest parts of the South, and you will find a huge number of Pakeha living in utter hardship.  It is an inconvenient truth that points out how social commentary creates myths about poverty.

Social Myths exist to provide a rationale that is more palatable that the truth.  So what is the truth about Poverty in New Zealand?

Duncan unwittingly drops us a large clue to this

They’re basically living in poverty, hand-to-mouth, week-to-week – if they’re lucky. They don’t have assets.

So what did we hear from the Government? Concern? Worry?

Not really. They agreed with it – in a dismissive and slightly argumentative tone. So what? Nothing we can do about it.

Nothing to see here, it’s the same trend as in the last 20-30 years said Prime Minister John Key and his right hand man, Bill English. These figures don’t fit the narrative – so they’ve been dismissed as meaningless.

The political philosophy of Neoliberalism, in various guises has dominated the political values of mainstream New Zealand for the last 30 years.

Time to take a sit down New Zealand, I am about to give you some very difficult news, both National, and Labour are neoliberal political machines. Both Labour and National believe in market economics, individual responsibility, and work will set you free solutions to poverty.  And both Labour and National have utterly failed to address growing inequality in New Zealand, indeed both have actively supported the conditions for it to thrive.

Duncan posed an interesting question on the left-right politics of poverty.

So, if so many own so little why can’t the Left get these people out to vote. The opposition needs to connect with these people. But they’ve failed to. They offer not much or Little (Andrew) that inspires them to vote.

The answer is stunningly simple, because Labour and Little aren’t the left.  Labour hasn’t been politically left since the days of Kirk and Rowling.  Lange and the chardonnay socialists of  1984 saw to that, and no-one, not even Angry Andy has shown any serious interest in returning to the roots.

The only difference between Labour and National is where the wealth redistribution will come from.  National are strongly aligned to trickle down, Labour to middle out.  Both systems are inherently neoliberal, and both are more rhetoric than reality.

The improvised people of New Zealand know this.  Labour has been no friend to those in hardship, it has played the same ‘you failed’ ‘you made bad choices’ bullshit neoliberal card.  Why would we vote for them?  Indeed why would we vote for any of them? There is simple not any political voice for us in New Zealand.

There is no Sanders or Corbyn in New Zealand, nor is there likely to be one.  The core values of New Zealand prevent such a rise.  The majority of Kiwis do now believe that poverty is caused by individual failure and not by systemic conditions.   The majority of Kiwis are not focused enough to figure out that if you profit someone loses.   The majority of Kiwis are not honest enough to accept that the real lack of individual responsibility might well be them. And sadly the majority of Kiwis are doing okay thank you very much, so stuff the other guy, it must be his fault.

Look we may well see a shift from National to Labour-Greens in 2017, but it wont mean much for those in poverty.  It is just the shuffling of feet in the political middle, nothing more than a corporate re-branding.   It will not be the revolution that Duncan ponders about.

These facts this week are a wake-up call. These people can’t stay poor and silent forever. What does the revolution look like? What is the knock-on effect?

That revolution Duncan is already here, we aren’t silent, we aren’t inactive.  There is a reason why John Key hides behind police lines.  There is a reason why security guards protect government departments, There is a reason why my neighborhood looks out for it’s own and doesn’t call 111.  There is a reason why people drive instead of walking through the neighborhoods.  The revolution is characterized by separation, disengagement, and a brutal rage that is too often misplaced.

There is a saying about the underclass, ‘desperate people do desperate things, and desperate things are always ugly things’.

It is a tragedy 30 years in the making, and no one weeps more than I.  It shouldn’t be this way, but it is.  The inconvenient truth is Poverty is not about the Poor, it is about decisions made by others.   The inconvenient truth is those decision haven’t be good ones and the consequences are becoming harder and harder to deny.



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