Monday 17 July 2017

Voter Motivators 2017: Poverty.

Making Poverty History: Dorothea Lange's iconic portrait of a Depression Era mother and her children speaks of a time when poverty was a problem to be solved - not a condition to be sneered at.
WHEN ENOUGH PEOPLE ARE POOR, poverty changes. Instead of being seen as the outward manifestation of vice, poverty is transformed into the enabler of virtue. In communities where everyone is poor, the merits of compassion, solidarity and generosity are everywhere on display. Poor people support one another, take care of one another, defend one another.
In societies where wealth and resources are controlled by a tiny minority, it is the rich who find themselves stigmatised. Their greed, love of luxury and relentless selfishness are everywhere condemned. In the eyes of the poor, wealth and vice are indistinguishable.
Eighty-five years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, poverty stalked four out of every five New Zealand streets. More than one in four men of working age were unemployed, and those who still had jobs were forced to accept regular – often savage – reductions in their wages and salaries.
As the economic crisis deepened, the spectre of poverty crept out of the urban slums and into the leafy suburbs of the middle-class. Respectable men on respectable salaries found themselves “let go”. Poverty ceased to be something that affected the “lower orders”. Now ordinary “decent” people were staring it in the face.
In 2017, with a general election looming, the issue of poverty still ranks as one of New Zealand’s big voter motivators. People sleeping in their cars; children succumbing to Third World diseases; workers lining-up at food banks for assistance; whole families going hungry to pay the power bill and keep the landlord happy: those lucky enough to live in the three out of four streets where poverty does not intrude have been made to feel profoundly uneasy by its evident proximity.
In a society where only a quarter of children are being raised in poverty, however, the remedies for privation and despair are hotly contested. With security and comfort now the norm in New Zealand, the question a great many voters ask themselves is: “What is going on in these families which prevents them from living a happy and productive life like the rest of us?”
In 1935, the answer to that question could be reduced to two words: “The Slump”. The effects of the Great Depression weighed upon the whole of New Zealand like a leaden overcoat. It made all the old explanations of poverty redundant. Whoever was to blame for the collapse of the capitalist economy – it wasn’t the poor.
And, for those who were hurting, the remedy was clear: vote for the party pledged to make poverty history. Let the state take the place of your family, friends and neighbours and become the collective deliverer of compassion, solidarity and generosity. All those things denied the poor: good jobs on good pay; free education and health care; a warm, dry house at an affordable rent; a measure of equality in the workplace; state assistance in old age, infirmity and economic adversity; these were the changes that Labour promised – and delivered.
Not only was poverty (in the sense of the harsh economic and social conditions experienced by a clear majority of the population in the early years of capitalism) reduced dramatically by the creation of the Welfare State, but in the decades that followed its moral character underwent an enormous revision.
No longer was poverty seen as the consequence of the viciously rich and their failed economic system. No longer was it celebrated as the creator of virtuous behaviour. Now it was regarded as the consequence of individual and familial inadequacy. Now it was the poor who exemplified vice. Laziness, drunkenness, violence, cruelty and crime: these became the new markers of Poverty.
The National Party’s twenty-first century response to this re-defined poverty is unequivocal: deal with the individual and familial inadequacies of the poor and the vicious circles of deprivation can be broken. They call it “Social Investment”.
Labour’s position is much more difficult. Gone are the days when an economically victimised majority saw themselves as the deserving beneficiaries of a long overdue and radical redistribution of society’s resources. In 2017, the no-longer-poor majority identify much more readily as taxpayers, and are much less certain that Labour’s (and the Greens’) compassion, solidarity and generosity are entitlements to which the “undeserving poor” have any claim.
Poverty will be motivating voters in 2017 – but in ways far removed from those of 1935.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 June 2017.


jh said...

No matter how we managed we are at some point we will reach a peak wealth. The way for NZ to improve is high-value export but we are hindered by distance. Adding more people to NZ is lowering the marginal product of each additional worker- as a result, 1.NZrs flow to Australia in search of better opportunities 2. Owners of land benefit. 3. resources flow into low-value service industries. 4. we have a larger economy but lower average incomes. Yet listening to economists the economy (and their salaries) are ticking along as though it were a Ferrari idling in the driveway.
The problem is perhaps that our views reflect personal life experience?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think conservatives have always gone for the "deserving" "undeserving" poor dichotomy. And maybe it's just me, but I think they've gotten much more mean-spirited since Roger Douglas fucked the economy. There is this Dickensian distaste – if not hatred for poor people. I haven't seen any comment on Metiria Turei's admission about lying to gain extra benefit yet, but I guarantee it will be ferocious. And yet rich people who rip off the system are treated very differently, both by conservative commentators, and by the government. Their man Trump is a case in point. :) 5 bankruptcies, hundreds of lawsuits, a fraudulent university. You don't hear much about those on Fox News. They are just relieved to have a businessman in charge of the country, as if that's a good thing.
My grandfather worked for the same firm post-World War I until the depression. Whereupon he got pleurisy, and was told not to come back to work. It didn't make my dad's upbringing any easier, because the only one in the family who could actually get work was my grandmother, who was in those days expected to go (run) home at lunchtime and cook the dinner. But as you said Chris poverty was so widespread it lost its stigma to a certain extent, particularly when the middle class started getting poor. They still had their superior attitudes towards the lower classes though.
I'm just reading the diary of an old guy who lived through world War 2. He was in his 60s at the time, and sounds like a very nice guy. He's well read, he discusses literature and poetry with his friends, he's kind to us relatives, he loves walking in the countryside looking at birds and bees, he's a bit eccentric, because he goes out in his back garden in the rain naked – but on the whole a nice chap. Yet when he is forced to walk through a working-class suburb because of the bombing of London, he has that casual classism, which leads him to talk about the "lesser sort". And at the beginning of the war he's bewailing the fact that the Brits can't get together with Hitler and invade Russia. Sigh.

greywarbler said...

Let the state take the place of your family, friends and neighbours and become the collective deliverer of compassion, solidarity and generosity.

This sounds like something out of the book Little Women where there was a kindness to others from the little the family had left after some downfall in the family's life. But it there is little in the pockets of others in the family, friends and neighbours, then charity and requesting 'relief' is the only way of managing. When the state's mandate was expanded to enabling a 'decent' standard of living, the matter became part of political planning and funding, not just left to random charity, or the poor being dependent on other poor, or wealthier, and cheese-paring relatives. That was what we thought had been set in stone.

Problems of business, finance, trade and labour management were expected to be dealt with directly, not by punishment of errant trade unions through destruction of their organisation, not by abandoning laws enabling working conditions and hours that respected humanity so
benefitting and subsidising sharp-eyed businesspeople. That trickle-down lie has turned out to have water-boarding consequences that are disturbing for the comfortably-off to consider, so they don't thank you.
"We haven't any cash in the house for your school sports, library, school concert competition raffle or sale of chocolate."

Something had to be done to break through the invisible armour-plating of the self-satisfied, self-made men and women rushing around hoovering up all the jobs and money there is. And telling themselves they are special and superior and hard-working not like all those other lay-abouts who won't turn up for work because they don't get enough wages to pay for food and transport as well.

The physical and psychological barriers for ordinary people to attain a reasonably happy life are getting higher. We worship Edmund Hillary who did something basically useless climbing Mt Everest, nice to have, but not needed. We don't worship the hard-working thin, worried woman trying to feed and teach those vulnerable children, two older and a babe in arms because she can't afford or wasn't enabled to use contraceptives. What can she teach them about the values of society, of how to be a happy, respected person contributing to this mean and hateful civilisation training people to accept servitude to AI robots.

This induced poverty of resources coupled with poverty of mind is just another way of committing genocide on ordinary people who are never able to realise their potential as creative, wonderful human beings. The people living simply in the jungles before curious and (avaricious, acquisitive, greedy, rapacious, grabbing, usurious, covetous, venal: your choice of words) moderns turned up were happier and more able to live to their potential.

I am interested to know if anybody cares to name a previous century which had got the balance about right - some modern advance, invention and discovery but a relatively peaceful happy existence although primitive? Or which country has achieved that for a period, and when?

peteswriteplace said...

Forget about wealth for a long time - maybe a couple of generations if you want to nurse immigrants as well.

Pinger said...

I worked for about 5 years in the early 2000's for Careers NZ - a Crown Entity with a powerful and unbreakable fixation with Neo Liberalism - especially amongst managers and staff who could stomach the 'kill the poor' mentality.

The real danger is bureaucrats who think they are modern-day crusaders.

Kat said...

So what are "society’s resources" in this country.

How about these to name a few, Energy, Rail, Transport, Forestry, Health, Education and Communications. These resources used to be owned 100% by the people and controlled through duly elected govt management.

I would argue that until "society's resources" are retrieved from the hands of the few and managed on behalf of the many then poverty in NZ will never be solved.

Polly said...

Chris, great piece of writing,
I have seen the poverty of Rio de Janeirio and of Bombay cities.
Our poverty has not reached those levels and pray to God they never will.
Jobs and then more jobs is a large part of the solution.
After that it can only be welfare until people are pushed or nurtured into work so they may get and maintain the dignity that work and wages provide.
But of course jobs must be available.
Is there a political system in the world that can eradicate poverty?.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Mr Trotter

Are you trying to say, in an ever so nice way, that Labour simply doesn't have a clue?

Jens Meder said...

Our problem of poverty amidst plenty is simply in that the well meaning welfare state of 70 years ago relied only on alleviating poverty without curing it by making sure enough wealth ownership creation for increasing productivity and security and maintenance reserves going with it.

Actions needed for fulfilling the "Property Owning Democracy" (Ownership Society) vision for all - where just neglected and perhaps even opposed.

State housing was a failed attempt in the right direction, in that it encouraged poverty to qualify for it and too many people began to rely on it, with the result that even the sound attempt to raise the national savings rate by compulsory retirement capital accumulation ended up in nothing else but more poverty alleviating consumption - and practically securing poverty continuation with it ?

What other basic poverty reducing and eliminating way can there be than a systematic universal personal and collective (retirement) wealth ownership creative savings rate built into our taxation system, for 100% participation by and for all, for the profits to be achieved that make everything needed and desirable more available in a sustainable way ?

Kat said...

"Jobs and then more jobs is a large part of the solution".

NZ is not South America, Africa or India or any other third world country I might add. The existence of ANY form or poverty in this country is utterly unacceptable. We have and have always have had the capability to lead the world not just as individuals but collectively. This little country punches far above its weight. We have the power to change any bad situation in this fair land.

Jobs and dignity will come from our resources as they once did.

September is looming.

greywarbler said...

You say this Chris but Brian Easton points out that.
In a society where only a quarter of children are being raised in poverty, however, the remedies for privation and despair are hotly contested. With security and comfort now the norm in New Zealand, the question a great many voters ask themselves is: “What is going on in these families which prevents them from living a happy and productive life like the rest of us?”

Do voters ask themselves 'How comfortable will we be when we are forced into Greece's situation.' Or as a vassal state with Special Economic Zones allowing the country to be decimated? I don't feel comfortable and I'm miles better than most, though well under median wage for 2016 $48,800.

Debt per Citizen
Debt as % of GDP
National NZ Debt $85 billion plus some extra dollars
Source: NZ Treasury. Interest per Year. NZ$4,227,099,742.
NZ is 36th in size of external debt $40,300 per capita in US$
and 100% of GDP,
(China has $1,000 per capita US$ and at 13% of GDP),
Mexico $3,200 and 38%, Greece $42,800 per capita US$ 245% of GDP, Ireland $471,000 and 780% of GDP.
(This isn't a well-run financial system anywhere in the world. I don't know if the figures quoted seem to correlate, it depends on what is being measured but it seems we are very indebted. That shouldn't be a source of comfort to any thinking person.)

Brian Easton - When the Water Runs Out
That bodes ill for the future of the New Zealand economy. Admittedly, farm production is no longer the dominant foreign-exchange earner it was in the 1960s when it supplied 95 percent of our external funds that were not borrowed. Today the ratio is less than half but it is not obvious that our other export industries can carry the deficit that a broadly stagnant farm sector would generate.

(Once upon a time we would make careful projections of our export potentials. Today we are much more casual; we borrow to make up any deficit – but that is not sustainable.)

Victor said...

An excellent piece, Chris

jh said...

That there living in ye fancy apartment not looking hot is it Chris Trotter. I had a girlfriend with an apartment in Epsom. It was a row of flats sold off as individual units. When it rained it flooded. She was a single japanese woman escaping the fact that she wasn't married (yet). Last I heard she had been looking over new apartments (prior to leaky home syndrome). I haven't kept up with her, but my feeling is in today's society you need a family or clan behind you because individuals get taken to the cleaners by the rat-bags of real estate. On The Panel an (ex-) building manager said that he would't buy an apartment as they were always having water problems. And yet all the bright and shiny's are promoting them and, cities are are "creative" etc,etc. These people are extrapolating Portland (or somewhere), they don't go near the people who live in Mouldy-Oldsville.
One thought i had this morning is that the people who have a say are those who write. Once those who wrote were poor. Now we have mass education and those who write are rich and identify with progressive values. No one has the energy to feel sorry for Kiwis.
On the other hand why would they: we have "the best country in the world" and a "rock-star economy" we have "super-diversity" and all over, the whole place justs gets better with an even brighter future as "large positive benefits" kick in due to a larger population.

jh said...

Actually Chris. That japanese woman was the my soul-mate. The only problem was that when I was 6 my mother died of meningitis. She and i parted at Christchurch hospital and while my father and sisters stayed at Diamond harbour I continued to north Canterbury to live with Auntie Vie.
Unfortunately Auntie Vie had, as a blossoming young woman, been burdened by the youngest sibling due to Grandma dying in childbirth. Uncle owen had been given to Auntie Lizzy and Uncle Donald (well before my time). They raised him in Riccarton where Uncle Donald worked at the Railway workshops but had to give him back at five years old (sadly). Uncle Owen flew a Spitfire in WW2 but returned to NZ about 10 years ago after Auntie Gladys died. He is like a little old Bilbo Baggins - now looking like a short question mark.
So Auntie Vie resented the emotional blackmail i represented and i had never spent one day away from home. Later in life when at last i found my way back i found i couldn't enter the door and i spent 20 years going to psychologists. Only one hit the nail on the head he said jh "Is there anyone you would die for? I would die for my wife and my daughter". In the ned I didn't marry her I married sex. Fortunately sex has a heart of gold but is not a soul mate.

jh said...

Jeez Chris I didn't think you would publish that?

Victor said...


You've reminded me of my experiences of being on the public payroll in the early 1990s.

I came to the conclusion that the one thing worse than ruthless capitalists was Stalinist bureaucrats playing at being ruthless capitalists(then very much the fashion).

Ruthless capitalists tend to be more interested in money than in power. So they don't waste time kicking you when you're down. Apart from anything else, it's a waste of expensive shoe leather.

Not so the Stalinist bureaucrats playing at being them. Power remains their favoured currency. And, as Orwell pointed out, power is meaningless without the ability to cause pain.

Olwyn said...

Once again, I have come too late to this most interesting post to offer anything more than a footnote to a conversation that has been and gone. But I think the changed attitude to poverty has more to do with standards than numbers. When Mrs Thatcher said " know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families," she was effectively putting into place the standard that has allowed neoliberal economics to gain and retain its foothold - the standard of the middle class person "struggling to get ahead."

There is nothing at all wrong with a middle class person struggling to get ahead, but there is something very wrong with that notion as a stand-in for the public good. For one thing, it privileges ambition over service in people who are already well ahead. It also serves a basis for disdain toward those who are not well-equipped for getting ahead, or not driven in that particular way. And its oppressive tendencies readily become invisible to middle class people, whose familiar standards, after all, are the ones being upheld. Back in the day, the "wicked rich" were condemned for taking too much and contributing too little. They were, however, meeting the standard that is currently privileged - that of "getting ahead."

Charles E said...

Olwyn I think Thatcher meant there is no such thing as an homogenous group called 'society'. Essentially it was a statement against ‘group-think’ and the left’s propensity to see everyone collectively only, and an instinctive conservative reflex to doubt anything containing or connected to the word ‘social’ as that usually indicates flawed Marxist thinking. She meant there are just people of all kinds and they care most for their nearest and dearest and the rest are always secondary to them. It was just an observation about the human condition so was absolutely correct. She did not mean we don't or should not care for our neighbours, our town, our province, our nation and so on. Conservative absolutely believe we must do so. But in a hierarchy.
Some on the left think conservatives do not care about anyone else, outside their patch as it were. That is obvious nonsense as conservatives want stability and growth of their own lives which very much depend on others enjoying the same. What the left fail to see is conservatives believe the way to a thriving life is to encourage everyone to be like them, through enterprise, self-control, education, kindness to the next person, respect for the rule of law and custom. In other words a life led by people and their families and their neighbours, not some bossy official or politician.
Ideally to the true conservative the government would only deal with national security, local policing and relations with other countries. The rest would occur locally, and further afield naturally, through people working together. .

Olwyn said...

Charles: Conservatives do not encourage everyone to be like them so much as to live up to their standards, which some conservatives live up to and others do not, with many variables in between. However, the thing with middle class standards is that they seem most self-evident to people living under middle class conditions - under different conditions, different standards seem to hold. If, say, the military voice became dominant (and I am certainly not suggesting that it should) then military standards would be trumpeted as the right way to live. And again, that would make the most sense to those involved in the military. A proper conception of the public good needs to encompass more than the favoured standards of a particular group.