Thursday, 7 January 2016

Poverty Denial

New Zealand’s current debate* about child poverty is a bit like climate change denial. Faced with large numbers of New Zealand children  ill with diseases of poverty, struggling at school, or  lacking nourishing food, or secure, warm homes, we don't address the problems, instead we deny poverty is a real problem in New Zealand.

Poverty denial is worth taking seriously  because, like climate change denial, it has the potential to undermine public momentum for change & delay effective policy action.

In an increasingly polarized debate,  “poverty deniers” tend to argue  there is no poverty in NZ, because we use relative income measures of poverty, (ones which go up and down as the overall circumstances of the population change), so we are not measuring “real” poverty –we may be measuring inequality but not poverty because hardly anyone is “really poor in New Zealand”. (If you want to read a thoughtful discussion about issues in measuring poverty see LSE here)

The trouble with this poverty denial argument is fourfold:

First poverty denial usually doesn’t offer a counter definition of what they mean by  ‘real’ poverty (often this is a political strategy because defining the problem means admitting there is an issue and then we might actually have to tackle it-so instead  deny, deny and deny. And besides, denying the poverty means we don’t have to think about stuff that makes us upset, so just like climate denial, poverty-denial is easier)

Secondly when poverty-deniers do attempt a definition they tend to imply the only “real” poverty is a desperate state eg, of starvation. If so, where does this leave New Zealand children who suffer poor nutrition and diseases of poverty already? Do we have to wait until our children are begging in the streets before we “believe” families are really poor? Seriously? (And is that the kind of reasoning we want to encourage in a small civilized democracy?)

Thirdly poverty-denial is internally inconsistent as an argument. New Zealand’s poverty-deniers implicitly argue that the reason there can’t be “real” poverty in New Zealand is because we have had an effective welfare state, one which meets most New Zealanders’ basic needs (health, nutrition, housing and access to education) so no one can be really struggling-not compared to nations without welfare. This argument, is not only contentious,  it is also inconsistent, because most poverty deniers also resent paying tax –they usually don’t want to support a collective approach to national flourishing via a welfare state and yet they have to use the existence of the NZ welfare state to argue that we have not got "real" poverty in New Zealand

Fourthly, poverty-deniers, if they admit poverty exists at all,  tend to see poverty as an individual problem- which can be overcome by hard work and a bit of luck. People can get themselves out of difficult situations if they just work hard enough. Some prominent individuals did it- why can’t others? The problem with this reasoning is that yes, a few individuals can do it, but we need a collective approach to provide the basic needs of access to education, health, housing which enables  individuals to get onto the working ladder and  become talented entrepreneurs. (Let's also remember that many Kiwis who are working are also really struggling to make ends meet and the structural  economic problems facing most young globally)
Listening: overcoming the political polarization around poverty

It is worth thinking more about the last argument; that poverty is an individual problem, because poverty-deniers tend to get very frustrated with those they describe as the poverty “do-gooders” who they argue tend to be middle class liberals, the kind of people who dominated the political economy in the past, and now want to meddle in individual lives and thwart efforts of individuals  to lift themselves up,  or remove "parental responsibility" or worse, “pander” to an "undeserving” poor.

More complexly some of the poverty denial argument is also driven by a frustration and anger with the language of "child poverty" which can at times become a deficit conversation that is blind to the aspiration and vision of those who don’t want to be patronised, and who are fed up with being told they are poor when they feel rich in their cultures, lived experience and vision.

I am dwelling on the stereotyped and polarized nature of New Zealand's poverty arguments between so called "poverty-deniers" vs poverty "do-gooders" because I think this is the most difficult, and serious issue for national conversation -we need to find ways to stop talking past each other and start to make a real difference for all New Zealand tamariki/children

The first problem (needing a definition of poverty) is easily fixed, New Zealand governments just need to pick some comprehensive measures of child wellbeing and then track and report on their achievements-this has to include reporting on measures of household income amongst the poorest homes (and relative to how the wealthiest are doing), because income inequality does matter, growing inequality moves the goal posts, making it hard  for kids to ever get a fair go because the great opportunities are always just out of reach)

The second problem is also something we can address, as a small, developed nation with excellent communication and literacy, New Zealand needs political vision to eliminate all forms of poverty and achieve universal access to quality education, effective heath care and secure housing for a new generation of young New Zealanders. The claim the poor are  "always with us", is an excuse for inaction. A sustainable prosperity is possible for all in this tiny developed nation of ours. Those who call for parental responsibility are remarkably silent about our shared responsibility to care for children.

The bigger problem is, are we politically brave enough to end child poverty?

Our tamariki, our children deserve a nation of adults who step up to their needs, and put aside our political bickering to make a difference to the lives of 220,000 children who are struggling.

When a government sets clear comprehensive measures and targets and invests in children and their mums, they make huge strides quickly. Of course philanthropy, individual & local action and business partnerships matter too but the fundamental change has to be driven by government policy and public pressure.

We “fixed” elderly poverty in New Zealand with NZ superannuation –an important, world leading policy. We can create a similar children’s sovereign wealth fund which invests in and supports all children regardless of whether their parents are working or not, to ensure all New Zealand children have the same access to adequate housing, education, nutrition and health services.

As a nation, New Zealand is only the size of one global city- the issues facing New Zealand children can be overcome if we choose to manage them-all that is stopping us is fear – fear  of listening to people we disagree with, and fear of success- what will our political parties campaign on if we ended child poverty for example, (not taped over it with a few concessions but actually ended it?)

 All New Zealand children can and should flourish, and as a nation we can make this happen, now.

(You can read more about the latest tracking of child poverty across all measures undertaken by Child poverty monitor here and you can read about Prof Susan St John's work for fairer tax here

*(You can learn about some of NZ child poverty denial  here & listen to a question (tentatively put) by Radio NZ's Guyion Espiner to the NZ Children's Commissioner Russell Wills, asking is this inequality or  poverty?  here) To which we might reply: why does it matter if the outcome either way is that New Zealand children are suffering?)