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.