Can we rediscover strength and richness as a society? Only together

The cast of Les Miserables performs "Do You Hear the People Sing" during the 2014 Tony Awards in New York

The cast of Les Miserables performs "Do You Hear the People Sing" during the 2014 Tony Awards in New York


"At the end of the day you're another day older

And that's all you can say for the life of the poor


One day less to be living.

At the end of the day you're another day colder

And the shirt on your back doesn't keep out the chill

And the righteous hurry past,

They don't hear the little ones crying...

And the winter is coming on fast, ready to kill."

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If you recognise those words, you'll know they're not sung melodically, but in an appropriately jarring, staccato fashion. There's a relentless repetitiveness about their timing that perfectly reflects their content.

The choir I'm in is currently practising a selection of music from the epic Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo's novel, which starts with that song, At The End Of The Day.

We've been through it a few times, but it struck me this week how perfectly some of Claude-Michel Schonberg's lyrics reflect the helplessness I've seen in the personal accounts of many struggling Kiwis lately.


* What kind of society do we want to be?
We need a more empathetic system
Communities of kindness popping up
Kindness the very best way to be
This will wallydrag the clunkies out of you
Is empathy on the endangered list? 

Some people have shared harrowing personal details directly with me of their own difficult circumstances, stories of  deprivation, of sacrifice on the part of usually single parents, and I'm keenly aware they're nowhere close to the stories of the worst off among us. I simply don't understand how the worst off survive, but I can well imagine what being in those circumstances does to their dignity.

Schonberg's opening two lines perfectly encapsulate for me the sense of unrelenting bleakness I imagine those people must feel. I experienced a tiny degree of that a few years ago when finances were particularly tight for several months. The ongoing mental pressure, the inner feeling of dignity stripped away, the building resignation, was intense. My doctor said I looked like I was in "battle mode". But I was never anywhere near the point many are, and things turned relatively quickly for the better.

For some that never happens. Imagine the grinding, enduring reality of never having enough to provide even the essentials, the knowledge your children aren't properly nourished, that their development might be compromised, the fear they might be trapped in that repeating cycle of poverty themselves, struggling through each day just to survive.

The line "One day less to be living", with its implied sense of relief at being a day closer to the release of death, is particularly poignant. As a measure of helplessness, that's right up there.

That lack of hope is reflected in New Zealand today, maybe not on your street or mine, or even in our respective neighbourhoods, but it is. Last month, for example, it was reported we had comfortably the worst homelessness statistics in the OECD, despite ongoing denials of a crisis. About 15 hours before I started writing this, we published a story about just one of Timaru's foodbanks giving out on average 50 more food parcels a week this winter than normal.

Some may choose to say New Zealand is not the 1832 France of Les Miserables, that we have a longstanding social welfare system. And we do.

Picture though the 2015 Salvation Army ad for its Red Shield Appeal, encouraging donations to help "Kiwis falling into desperate need". It featured slow-motion footage of people falling into darkness, with a net featuring the Sallies' badge appearing out of the gloom to stop them.

There's no doubt the Sallies, St Vincent de Paul, whose foodbank the abovementioned story referred to, and several similar organisations do an amazing job. However targeted charity can't do the whole job, it's our social welfare system that is supposed to be the primary safety net for Kiwis, and there's a clear sense it's not doing its job adequately, is not actually designed to. That in many circumstances it adopts an adversarial stance towards those it's designed to help.

That was the reason for now former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei raising her own experience of the welfare system a few weeks ago, in presenting one of her party's key policies, to end poverty in New Zealand.

This column isn't a forum for debate about what she said or did, or what others think she should have said or done. Whatever the motivation behind the response to it, though, it did a great job of deflecting from the point she was trying to highlight, which remains valid despite the noise.

Less than 24 hours after Turei's resignation, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians published a paper saying living in cold, mouldy, overcrowded housing was resulting in repeat hospital admissions for children in particular for respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, and calling on politicians to do more to address health inequity.

Modern New Zealand and 1832 France do intersect in the existence of grinding poverty, and - I'm going to stick my neck out and say this - in being more divided than we've been for some time along class lines. In that respect, we're not vastly different from Britain right now.

And those issues are something we simply have to do something about as a country if they're not to keep getting worse. It's not about political affiliation, it's about our shared humanity. It's about kindness, about every one of us feeling we belong in this society. 

I watched a powerful, uplifting talk this week, on YouTube, by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, titled "How we can face the future without fear, together", surely an appropriate topic for our times, and it included this compelling message:

"When we move from the politics of the me to the politics of all of us together, we rediscover those beautiful, counter-intuitive truths that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor..." 

Call me an idealist, but I think that's a journey of rediscovery it would be well worth us taking together. 

 - Stuff


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