Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Final Fifth: The Last Great Task For Progressive New Zealand.

"For mercy has a human heart, pity a human face" - William Blake
 
MOST OF NEW ZEALAND’S social problems are concentrated among those living at the margins of what is otherwise a relatively wealthy society. Recently released international data on child poverty has exposed an acutely stressed social strata encompassing roughly 20 percent of the nation’s population. Most of these New Zealanders are young, brown, indifferently educated and lacking in readily marketable skills. A significant number are supported by the State, but many others support themselves through part-time jobs paying at or below the minimum-wage. Some will supplement their meagre “official” income through various kinds of socially stigmatised and/or criminal activity such as prostitution and drug-dealing. Maintaining traditional family structures under such stress is further hampered by a critical shortage of affordable housing, inadequate public transportation and declining levels of unskilled and semi-skilled employment. The heaviest burden falls upon single mothers. It is estimated that approximately 250,000 children are being raised in circumstances of serious material, emotional and cultural deprivation.
 
Eighty-three years ago an even larger percentage of the New Zealand population lived in poverty. In 1931 the Great Depression had cast tens-of-thousands of families into circumstances of acute hardship. Nearly a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Everywhere small businesses were failing. The banks and mortgage companies were throwing farmers off their land. Even those lucky enough to have a job were subject to frequent and arbitrary wage reductions. The trade unions were powerless to help. One third of the country was desperate. One third was under stress. And the remaining third lived in fear of the rest.
 
In 1932 rioting broke out in all of New Zealand’s major cities. In Dunedin a hungry crowd ransacked Wardell’s – a high-end food emporium. In Auckland Special Constables were sworn in to maintain order after thousands of enraged unemployed workers smashed the plate-glass shop fronts of Queen Street and looted all they could carry away. At the Devonport naval base, ratings armed with 303 rifles and machine-guns waited for the order to suppress the rioting by deadly force.
 
The government of the day – a coalition of rural conservatives and urban liberals – reacted to this unprecedented expression of social despair by passing the Public Safety Conservation Act (which allowed for the indefinite suppression of democratic norms) and by deporting as many able-bodied unemployed male workers as possible to work-for-the-dole labour camps in the countryside. By 1933, a terrible, sullen, silence had descended upon New Zealand. But, underneath that silence, there was a grim determination – extending across all social classes – to bring these hateful conditions to an end.
 
These are just some of the vivid tales contributing to the Great New Zealand Myth. That enduring narrative concerning the collective struggle for social justice and social progress which culminated in the election and re-election of the First Labour Government. Like all great myths it is characterised by expiation, catharsis and the eventual emergence of a new consensus about what and who we are. A happy ending – of sorts.
 
Fast-forward 83 years and what has become of the Great New Zealand Myth? There is much about it that remains unchanged. As a nation we are still susceptible to appeals for social justice, still ready to make social progress. But there are differences also. The very success of the Welfare State that Labour brought into being has given rise to some very different expectations.
 
Poverty carries no stigma when everybody is poor. Quite the reverse. Deprivation visited upon a community through no fault of its own tends to develop tremendously strong bonds of solidarity and a willingness to share and co-operate. Indeed, it was precisely these virtues of solidarity and co-operation that made the changes of the First Labour Government possible and which allowed them to endure.
 
But a welfare state – especially one underpinned by a bi-partisan commitment to full employment – slowly but inexorably changes people’s perception of poverty. When the state has given everyone access to health care, affordable housing, and an education to the fullest extent of their powers, then poverty ceases to be regarded as a collective curse and becomes, instead, evidence of individual failure.
 
And if, to this general impatience with “welfare dependency” one adds the prejudices of a comfortable Pakeha majority all-too-easily provoked by people of different colours and cultures, then that marginalised 20 percent of New Zealanders still in the grip of poverty ends up being despised as useless mouths, parasites, persons as underserving of decent citizens’ pity as they are of the State’s succour and support. It’s why progressives no longer talk about poverty per se. “Child poverty” is what you’re forced to talk about when general compassion for the condition of those children’s parents is all tapped out.
 
Buried deep in the former white working-class’s antipathy to “bludgers” and “welfare cheats” is an unspoken but politically crucial question: ‘Why don’t you people do something about your situation?’ Their class memory informs them that there was a time when their parents and grandparents faced exactly the same problems as today’s poor. The big difference, they tell themselves, is that their forebears did something about it. They joined unions. They went on strike. They rioted in the streets. They formed their own political party. They won state power. They changed the rules. They got out. ‘So, what’s stopping these buggers?’
 
Nothing. And that’s the point. The First Labour Government created a society in which anyone in possession of a good enough brain, a strong enough will and a big enough dream was free to escape from their family’s cash-strapped condition. In the years prior to 1935, the powers-that-be had built a brick ceiling over the working-class. Those who were smart and ambitious had to be smart and ambitious not just for themselves but also for their class. Eventually, these working-class leaders assembled the necessary tools and muscle to smash through the bosses’ brick ceiling and erect the ladders up which their “aspirational” offspring could climb into a new and very different world.
 
To a considerable extent it is this that explains the bottom 20 percent’s political inertness. In a proportional electoral system there is little doubt that a roused “underclass” would very quickly force the rest of society to address its problems. So, where are the Harry Hollands, the Mickey Savages, the Peter Fraser’s of today? Where is the Maori, the Pacifica, John A Lee speaking for today's “Children of the Poor”? Well, most of them, being free and clear of their origins, don’t need to. They did not have to make a revolution to get their children up and out. That’s why they’re lawyers and doctors and business-people. For this lucky few, those who would once have served as the yeast in the social bread, the underclass is in the past. It's no longer their problem.
 
The stubborn fifth of social dysfunction at the base of New Zealand society thus imposes a huge responsibility on the lucky four-fifths of New Zealanders smart and skilled and lucky enough to be at least a few pay-checks away from the lethargy and despair which so quickly disempowers the victims of poverty.  So, if there is one last, important political mission for progressive New Zealanders, then it is surely this: to fulfil the role once played by the best and the brightest of a working-class offered no means of escape. To read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals; to assemble a veritable army of “community workers”; to preach the gospel of getting up-and-in to all those who are presently down-and-out. To stay among the poor and marginalised for as long as it takes. Until the wonderful day dawns when the people they have come to break out of poverty’s prison tell them to: “Fuck off! We can do this ourselves.”
 
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 1 November 2014.

17 comments:

Mark Wilson said...

You are correct in your analysis of what needs to be done for the poor. The issue is after so many years of the welfare state the majority will only accept a hand out not a hand up. Sounds harsh but check with those at the coal face at WINZ, Housing Corp etc.
Any reasonably well organised recipient of welfare in NZ does not have their children going without the neccessities of life and a modicum of extras.
The issue is that if you teach people on a generational basis that the state will provide without any effort on behalf of the recipient you do breed an underclass that will not rise to the challenge of properly looking after their children.

peter petterson said...

NZ is no longer a relatively wealthy society at all. A wealthy minority do extremely well. Hard workers prepared to put in the hours and work, no longer get rewarded as they once were. The key govt would be well advised to keep away from grassy knolls.

Davo Stevens said...

Very true Peter P. It's the same throughout the western world sadly. People are working 70 or more hours a week just to keep their noses above water. They never manage to climb out.

I find Mark Wilson's comments intriguing! Somehow it's the fault of the poor that they are in the position that they are. Most beneficiaries manage their meager incomes well, they have to, but that doesn't mean that they waste their money either. Some do, just the same as better off people waste their money too.

The real problem is that the benefit payments are too low for people to survive at anything above subsistence level. The end result is hungry kids and hungry people.

The issue of un-employment is a necessity for Capitalism to work. There must be an underclass of about 10% of the able workers out of work and actively seeking a job to keep wages down and profits up.

What happened to the drug testing of beneficiaries? Our Paula was going to test random dolies because she believed that they were just sitting smoking dope. After a couple of months it was quietly dropped because they hardly found any dolie was doped up. It wasn't worth the costs of doing it.

Davo Stevens said...

Incidentally do a search for "The Industrial Surplus" and you will understand why we have un-employed in our society.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The issue actually is that after so many years of government-sponsored unemployment, we have people who don't really know how to work. However, the overwhelming majority of them want to. They would welcome a hand up it's just that the government doesn't really want to give them one. The unemployed are useful for keeping the rest of us in line. Meanwhile, the "handouts" will be handled by a sinking lid.

peter petterson said...

The creation of permanent full time well paid jobs would solve the problems of society? Yeah right! Should we go to China?

pat said...

"the poor will always have with you"....may be a truism, certainly in the current economic system.
Anyone who dosnt realise that an economic underclass is an unavoidable natural consequence, indeed in many respects a requirement, of this system is either dishonest or delusional.Blaming this group for their position is pointless as if it were not these individuals it would be others, perhaps you?
That being so, short of abandoning the current system the question that needs to be answered is how this group is treated?.......and the answer this government is giving is ..."a whole lot worse"

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Any reasonably well organised recipient of welfare in NZ does not have their children going without the neccessities of life and a modicum of extras."

I love this – it's a variation on the no true Scotsman defence – always good for a laugh. It's like those people who live on the benefit for a week, and say "gosh it's easy." It is until you need new shoes for the kids or they wear out some of their school uniform or get sick. The underclass, while condemned by the right is a function of its policies. And the point remains, what on earth do we do with them? Withdrawal government support? That will definitely give them a challenge. Just what they need – no money, no job, and no chance at one. Until these wingnuts explain exactly what they're going to do with the poor I'm calling bullshit on this one.

Davo Stevens said...

Very true Surgeon. Un-employment is part of a Capitalist Economy, nay, a requirement.

I see no problem with using my tax money to pay young people to work to benefit our society in the future. I DO have a problem with my tax money used to bail out financiers who get themselves into the pooh!

A decent and well set up work scheme can and does benefit the country as a whole. Get young un-employed people out planting trees on marginal land for example. The trees would be an asset in the future and it would teach the people good work ethics as well.

No, I don't mean a Work-For-The-Dole either, pay them the equivalent of what people would be paid in the private sector. It would have the added advantage of getting the young un-employed out of the cities and into a better life. The money that is paid would spread out through the economy and we all would benefit from that.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Why is there all this fuss and palaver about the poor anyway? They don't cost the country nearly as much as tax fraud. Why do the right not get upset about this? How many billions must be ripped off before they start demanding action? Oh – I forgot it's them that's doing it.

Anonymous said...

child poverty should be renamed " parent irresponsiblity"

Davo Stevens said...

Surgeon did you not realise that satire doesn't go over well in text form? ;)

Honest John says that the sale of State Houses is all Labour's fault. Somehow they managed to deflect it during the Electioneering! He wasn't able to discuss it at the time. Of course Honest John never calls Slater as a PM, hell no, he's not a PM when he talks to the slug!

BTW Surgeon, Honest John says that un-employment will be fixed by private enterprise and there is no need for the gubbies to intervene. We can believe him of course, because he's Honest John who never ever tells lies. Tui ad anyone?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"child poverty should be renamed " parent irresponsiblity""

See here's the fucking thing. NO IT SHOULDN"T. Try bringing up kids on a benefit before you spout this bullshit.

Davo Stevens said...

Surgeon: Under the bridge was an old, old troll.

Don't feed 'em mate.

Victor said...

Davo and others

"The issue of un-employment is a necessity for Capitalism to work. There must be an underclass of about 10% of the able workers out of work and actively seeking a job to keep wages down and profits up."

I can't say I agree with you. Governments make policy choices and, prior to the mid 1970s, most western governments claimed to be committed to achieving full employment.

They hardly ever hit their target. But they normally got a whole heap closer to it than happens these days. Even so, capitalism survived.

Counter-cyclical focus, fiscal policy and active labour market policies need, however, to be part of the mix.

GS

"Why is there all this fuss and palaver about the poor anyway? They don't cost the country nearly as much as tax fraud. Why do the right not get upset about this?"

Agreed. Moreover government debt, per se, is hardly at the top of New Zealand's list of real economic problems.

In 2012, according to the IMF, net government debt as a percentage of our GDP stood at 26.416%.

Compare this with 82.785% for the UK, 87.859% for the US or 134.325% for Japan. Even the frugal Germans managed to achieve a ratio of 57.224%

Projections from the same source paint an even starker contrast between NZ and these mastodons over the next half dozen years.

So why the fuss? It's like the "flag debate"; a means of distracting attention away from what's really wrong with our country and our economy.

The cruel irony is that the likes of "Mark Wilson" find it possible to kid themselves that they're the hard-headed, fact-driven realists!

Victor said...

Chris

You describe 80% of New Zealanders as "lucky enough to be at least a few pay-checks away from the lethargy and despair which so quickly disempowers the victims of poverty."

That hardly sounds like an affluent nation to me.

Maybe it's because the abyss is so proximate and the struggle to stay out of it so remorseless, that a great many New Zealanders despise, fear and are desperate to distinguish themselves from those who have fallen into it.

Somehow or other, the Center-Left needs to convince voters that what's good for the 20% is also good for most (if not all) of the 80%.

A good way to start is by debunking "austerity" as the cure-all for our economic woes.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I know Davo I know :-). But you can't troll for very long on this blog so it probably doesn't matter.