Dave Armstrong: Poverty's real in New Zealand

Former ACT Party leader Jamie Whyte believes there is no poverty in New Zealand - nor Britain.
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Former ACT Party leader Jamie Whyte believes there is no poverty in New Zealand - nor Britain.

OPINION: During the summer holidays, the first casualty is serious news. With little happening on the political front, the media feeds our national obsession with summer weather and the road toll, along with advice on how to cope with a New Year's hangover.

So it's been a pleasant surprise to see some journalists discussing poverty, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as the "condition of having little or no wealth or few material possessions".

Organisations around the world define poverty differently, often to do with relative incomes within a society. Using these or the Oxford definition, poverty definitely exists here. Meanwhile, the poverty deniers, of whom New Zealand seems to have an increasing number, maintain that there is no real poverty in New Zealand, especially compared to places like India.

In 2005, former ACT leader Jamie Whyte maintained that "the poorest in Britain are the unemployed. They receive free medical care, free education for their children and enough cash to pay for basic food, clothing and (subsidised) housing.

Most have televisions, refrigerators and ovens. Many even own cars. That isn't poverty." He recently updated his article for a newspaper here, replacing "Britain" with "New Zealand" and making other minor adjustments.

Using Whyte's argument, there are also no rich in New Zealand and, compared to Somalia and Neptune, no extreme weather. 

Talk of poverty rarely makes the bourgeois backyard barbecues at our house – until a small tent got pitched a few days before Christmas just metres away in a council-owned piece of no-man's-land. The inhabitant was homeless and harmless. It was his dodgy friends visiting late at night who caused concern as I became, literally, a NIMBY.

Most local residents were unimpressed. A concerned neighbour warned his infant daughters that under no circumstances could they talk to any strange men over the fence. "But I like talking to Dave," wailed the five-year-old. I believe an exception was made. Eventually council officers arrived and to the silent relief of residents the man moved on. 

The incident provoked an unseasonably interesting discussion. Some agreed with Whyte that there are no truly poor in New Zealand, that such people choose to live in a tent. Others saw it as a sad reflection of rising inequality.

Though it's true that some homeless people have addictions, so "choose" to live how they do, are our social services so benevolent that they will assist everyone in genuine need immediately?

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When statistics show numbers of people going off benefits without a similar rise in employment, you have to wonder just how many rich great-uncles leaving inheritances New Zealand has. Or have people simply been shut out of the system by zealous bureaucrats because they didn't meet some minor technical requirement, so are forced to pitch a tent near Dave's backyard? 

A fact that would make poverty deniers choke on their flat Whytes is that our homeless temporary neighbour owned a cellphone. I know this because we could overhear his desperate efforts to contact Work and Income as he tried to find out when his next benefit payment would be made. Unlike The Warehouse, Work and Income doesn't do Boxing Day.

Does ownership of a cellphone, which can cost very little, preclude one from living in poverty? Try getting a benefit or a job without a phone number, email address or bank account.

Despite being an opinionated Lefty, I get irritated by constant requests from beggars.

I don't think it's healthy for homeless people to live in areas designed for public recreation. Yes, I'm selfish. I don't want to take personal responsibility for people living in poverty but I'd love it if my taxes did.

That's how it used to be here not so long ago, when foodbanks didn't exist and the number of homeless was tiny. I remember when we had few cases of "poverty" diseases such as rheumatic fever or rickets.

The poverty deniers also remember those "dark" days because you couldn't move money quickly offshore, it took months to import an espresso machine and foreign boutique beers cost more than local. Perhaps a good New Year's resolution is that we all work to eliminate poverty so that any arguments about actually defining it remain, like Jamie Whyte, purely academic.

 - The Dominion Post

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