The poverty enigma

18:46, Dec 21 2012
Martin van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

One of the most important stories of the year will probably not make it into the top story lists.

The already forgotten run of stories concerned children turning up for school hungry and then broadened into child poverty. It is not a new story, but it goes to the fundamental idea we have of our country.

Poverty is one thing, hunger is another. No matter what our political persuasion, no decent New Zealander should tolerate hunger in this land of plenty.

Predictably one faction describes the problem as a failure of the state, a symptom of an economic system that condemns people to a miserable existence living on benefits and low wages.

Just as predictably, another faction blames feckless, shiftless parents for letting their kids go hungry and claims providing breakfasts in schools creates an incentive for bad parenting, laziness and increased dependence.

Both camps of course have an image of the sort of people they are talking about.


The bleeding hearts, especially those who have no real contact with the poor, seem to have in mind a sort of Grapes of Wrath family. This picture consists of a noble yet poor family where the parents keep their children clean and fed, make terrible sacrifices and uphold basic standards despite their deprived circumstances.

The other faction - let's call them the blamers - has in mind an overweight work shirker who can't keep out of trouble and is happy to breed, despite not having the means to bring up children.

Bleeding hearts believe people are essentially redeemable and, with the right policy settings, society can almost eliminate poverty.

The belief of the blamers is that people are fundamentally flawed, will always take the easy way out and need a stick and a carrot to do the right thing.

One group is not necessarily kinder or better than the other.

Which group you fall in (I tend to be a blamer) certainly colours the way you think about social problems.

Both groups' mindsets have elements of truth, but reality is always different.

For instance the assumption beneficiaries have only the meagre income they get from the taxpayer, is to ignore the huge black economy in New Zealand and how easy it is to make a bit on the side in kind or cash.

By the same token it's wrong to judge many of these severely dysfunctional families by middle class standards.

To expect them to overcome with hard work and clean living their addictions, mental health issues and childhood trauma shows a complete lack of understanding.

The times also make it harder for people to get themselves out of ruts. Steady, well-paying, unskilled jobs have gone offshore or have been replaced by machines.

In other words, the blamers could do with a bit more of "but for the grace of God go I".

Although, just once, it would be nice if some of the anti-poverty advocates acknowledge that, in many cases, poverty is not entirely unrelated to lack of responsibility and plain innate stupidity.

The bleeding hearts, and I don't use that term pejoratively, decry the myths undermining the blamers' perspective, but nonetheless play the game themselves. This is why poverty in New Zealand is usually talked about now as child poverty.

Deprived children do not come from comfortable homes.

To talk about child poverty as somehow separate from general poverty is a little disingenuous, but gets around the deserving and undeserving poor distinction because no-one can blame the kids.

This year there has been no shortage of reports on the issue, with the latest coming this month from a group of academics appointed by the Children's Commissioner.

The reports don't appear to have resulted in any major changes and, given the polarisation of views on the issue, you can see why governments don't see many votes in tackling the issue.

Ignoring the reports is a shame, because they suggest some simple practical steps that would make an immediate difference. The measures include breakfast and lunch programmes in the poorest schools; free health care for children in deprived areas; and the provision of good standard housing by the state and monitoring of accommodation provided by the private sector.

Can we afford it? Well we could try ending the middle class subsidies entailed in Working for Families and the living allowance for students for a start.

More funding could come from outlawing the various tax dodges and creative accounting provided by family trusts.

The time has come for all of us to stump up. Even blamers like me can see the status quo is indefensible.

The Press