Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Ecology Of Poverty

The Ecology Of Poverty: The range of common experiences between the comfortably off New Zealander and the struggling beneficiary has narrowed dramatically. The days of "getting out the vote" may be over.
THERE’S A STORY I like to tell about “getting out the vote”. I’m sharing it with you today because unless Labour is able to substantially increase the number of New Zealanders participating in the electoral process its chances of becoming the next government are negligible. The story is also important because I’m not that confident it could be repeated. And if it isn’t repeatable, then the whole character of electoral politics in New Zealand has already changed – irrevocably.
But first – the story. I have changed the name of the woman at the centre of this true tale because it happened a long time ago and she has since gone on to carve out a highly successful career in a major New Zealand company.
But, back in the day, Mary was living in one of those provincial centres where the city fathers (and mothers) like to keep all the unemployed, solo mums, invalids and sickness beneficiaries in one shabby suburb so that the authorities can keep an eye on them. Just about everybody rented: either from the state or from the folks who lived in the nicer parts of town. The houses had mostly seen better days, even if the people inside them hadn’t much hope of doing the same.
Mary and her little boy subsisted on the DPB and whatever extra help her (proudly left-wing) family could provide. Survival, under the tender legacy of Christine Rankin’s WINZ, was a full-time job for most beneficiaries. Very few of them had any time for politics or politicians. And, if we’re being honest, most politicians didn’t have that much time for them.
Though Mary lived in a Labour-held electorate, her MP really wasn’t much cop – at least not as far as the people who lived on Mary’s street were concerned. She had made her way up through the mostly middle-class Women’s Network of the Labour Party which meant that her working knowledge of the working-class was, to put it kindly, somewhat limited.
But, as I said, Mary came from an intensely political working-class family. Both her parents and two of her siblings were left-wing party activists and Mary had acquired the ability to formulate a better-than-average political analysis practically by osmosis. Unlike most of her neighbours, she saw a General Election looming. And just like the city’s shrewder party bosses, she was pretty sure her local MP was in trouble.
Sure enough, the polling booths had only been open a few hours on Election Day when Labour’s scrutineers noticed a frightening trend. If the hundreds of “natural” Labour supporters in Mary’s suburb continued to stay at home (as they were doing in droves) the incumbent MP was going to lose. Somehow word was got to Mary: “Can you get your neighbours out? If Labour doesn’t maintain its vote at your local booth, the Nats will win.”
Now Mary may not have cared much for the Labour Party but she cared for the National Party a whole lot less. So, as the day wore on, Mary wore her knuckles raw on the doors of her friends and neighbours.
She knew them and they knew her. More importantly, they trusted her. So when she told them: “You gotta get down to the school and vote. Yep, right now. Coz if all of us living round here don’t vote Labour, the Nats will win.”
And it worked. Mary’s neighbours squeezed their babies into their strollers, and their voting papers into the ballot box – and Labour held the seat.
I told this story to my brother last Christmas, and he shook his head. He’s been a social worker for 40 years and he told me, sadly, that “the ecology of poverty” (as he memorably described the social relations of deprivation) has undergone a dramatic change since he first ventured into those hard-scrabble suburbs back in the late-1970s. He’s not so sure that the species of citizen to which Mary belonged – already on the edge of extinction 20 years ago – exists anymore.
Had he been dropped into Mary’s social ecosystem 20 years ago, he said, finding a path to survival, though difficult, would still have been possible. The poor still had enough in common with “Middle New Zealand” for a reasonable measure of mutual comprehension. Today, he said, it would be much harder. The range of common experiences between the comfortably off New Zealander and the struggling beneficiary has narrowed dramatically.
“I don’t think I could do it.”
And, believe me, if he couldn’t do it, and if the sort of well-read, politically-aware, working-class families that made Mary possible no longer exist, then the mission of “getting out the Labour vote” has become a fool’s errand.
Twenty years ago the ecology of poverty still possessed a sufficiently political dimension to preserve Labour’s honour. Twenty years later – it’s gone.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 March 2014.


Brendan McNeill said...


What was Mary's back story? Was she abandoned by an abusive partner, or was she never in a relationship in the form of marriage?

I appreciate that for many people on the Left, that question is irrelevant, but similarly for many New Zealanders it is primary.

We get the idea of helping someone who is down and out as a result of circumstances beyond their control. However, do working New Zealanders have a responsibility to fund teenage mothers whom we are told by State agencies make up at least 33% of those starting out on what was the DPB and who have never been in a relationship in the form of marriage?

If we remove all responsibility from individuals for their economic circumstances, do we promote irresponsibility as an unintended consequence?

We have approximately 100,000 solo parents and 200,000 children on welfare in NZ. 20% of all NZ children end their first year on welfare. These are hardly encouraging statistics.

In the name of compassion we have created an ecology of poverty through welfare, most particularly the solo parent allowance.

I am interested to know what suggestions exist on the Left of the political spectrum to reduce the numbers of people, mainly women, who we have consigned to State funded poverty with all the attendant failure and misery.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I don't normally bother with compliments, but someone has been very incisive here. My family was similar to that woman's family. Nowadays I work with people who are poor. There is a huge difference between them and me, somewhat bridgeable because I've been through some of the same things but it's still a huge chasm. They've been through stuff I couldn't have imagined back in the old days. And they are educationally, emotionally, and socially stunted. Some of them have never simply got on a train and gone to town. They live basically where they were brought up. These are what that arse who writes that column for one of the newspapers who I can't be bothered looking up calls "ferals" They've been made this way by successive right-wing governments, and if we don't do something about it they WILL be a permanent underclass as exists in places like Glasgow.
But no one cares about them any more. They live in places where middle-class people never visit. Politicians don't give a fuck because they never vote. And most people don't ever come into contact with them through work for instance, because they don't work. The historian Keith Sinclair maintained that was the rugby club where the classes mixed. I suspect these guys play league :-).

Anonymous said...

I think you are correct Chris, but suspect we would differ on the aetiology.These days we are dealing with a poverty of intellect,drive and ambition.So used to having everything provided by the state,when the chips are down these people can't fight ( think) their way out of a wet paper bag.Twenty years ago,amotivation & apathy were less prevalent. :-(

Rmj1 said...

There is an apt saying here in Australia that sums it up to a tee for poor people in NZ, and also includes a good number of tangata whenua here. Admittedly it has a geographic basis in the large hot dry land here to the west but it is apposite......"fucked and far from home".

So what do you do.....well for me, turn up at home and help. You can take the boy out of....

Davo Stevens said...

Hmm! Our 'Pretty' Paula Bennett was on the DPB too. Sucked all she could out of the system then, as Minister, clamped down on those who followed.

Stopped night school education for the poor, took away their opportunities to advance their education status. What a darling she is!

There is too much bullshit out there about so-called "Welfare Queens" especially from the 'Right' who simply are too thick to ever realise that they are talking crap!

Our John is as cunning as a fox and I agree with you Chris, he's done this to one-up the Opposition.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I see you're still mumbling the same old platitudes Brendan. I'd just like to know how the right intends dealing with these people. They don't seem to do a heck of a lot apart from reducing their benefits and forcing them to look for work that doesn't exist. The 1984 labour government had the beginnings of an idea before it was hijacked by Roger Douglas. Increase the benefit so people can actually take a proper part in society, are not have to choose between food and shoes for the kids. Fat chance of that operating now. And

Wayne Mapp said...

Chris, are you really sure that there is no social mobility? That all the programme aimed at solo parents and their children count for nothing. That no one progresses. Because it seems to me that welfare rolls do change, that a large number of people do progress out of welfare into work or training that leads to work. I appreciate there may be a subset for whom that is less likely. But I suspect it is nothing like the 70 to 80% as your article implies. And in 2005 a lot of people in South Auckland did vote, later in the day. But there has to be a reason to do so, and simply saying "I'm from Labour" is not going to be enough.

Trotsky said...

I agree people like your Mary would be almost non existent nowadays. Many years ago I worked as an HT driver and the proletariat I worked with were (aside from an instinctual dislike of National) completely apathetic about anything except rugby, deep fried food beer and fags, they were very hostile to unorthodoxy - like discussing politics or books and its unlikely they would relate to some educated middle class do-gooder banging on they're door preaching a gospel of change and revolution.

This underclass is unreachable and they're behavior is immutable to all but the most aggressive policies like massive increases in tobacco and alcohol prices the provision of free school lunches government funded training and apprenticeship schemes and whatever economic growth filters down to lift they're boats. Expecting them to become politically engaged is as realistic as expecting them to master advanced calculus in the complex number plane - an impossibility.

Anonymous said...

Brendan would rather the state didn't care for the vulnerable in society. Because if it's tough enough, the poor will be forced to pull themselves out of poverty.

Brendan, you're a grown man. When in history has that ever happened?

When has poverty ever been eliminated that way?

clouds said...

Provocative as usual Chris, but I am hard pressed to think of any policy initiatives from Labour that would address this kind of poverty in any meaningful way.

Davo Stevens said...

Some-one once said that to 'Ignore the plight of the Poor at your peril'.

History is dotted with revolutions where the self-righteous often got a haircut just below the chin!

Brendan McNeill said...

Guerilla Surgeon & andrewmahon1234

I sometimes wonder if you good folks read past my name at the top of the post before you reach into your pocket of assumptions and then launch into a stereotyped attack.


I asked what the Left's solution is to reduce the number of welfare dependent, State impoverished Mary's of this world? (and their children)

If you raise benefits, then you can be assured many more Mary's will be attracted to that welfare option. At leat the National party, for all their failings understand this.

Even with benefits at the very low rates they are, we still have more than 10 times the number on this benefit today than we did in the 1970's after it was introduced.

However if you combine it with accommodation allowances, it often ends up to be more money per week than an undereducated woman (or man) could earn in the workforce.

What would I do?

Clearly we cannot judge people who make mistakes without judging ourselves. We all make mistakes. What we don't have to do however is take collective responsibility for the mistakes and choices made by others, especially those who become pregnant and have never been in a relationship in the form of marriage.

I fully accept that there was a man involved in this transaction, and accountability has to be shared.

Sue Bradford argues that it's a women's right to manage her own fertility [at the tax payer's expense].

If that's the position of the left, then I guess there is not much more to be said. I am hoping however that there might be other more sane voices in this political debate?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Brendan, I sometimes wonder if you read anything at all. Unmarried mothers are not the only poor people. Unmarried fathers are often poor also. So your answer to their poverty is to take money from the poor and give it to the poor :-). Of course that leaves all those other poor people you haven't done anything about yet.
I can't remotely understand what's going on in your mind. In there somewhere, there are millions of people just desperate to rip off the government and the taxpayer, and live high on the hog at our expense. Whereas in reality, something you seem unacquainted with most people genuinely want to work if not for the money, then for the dignity involved. I know that, because I work with them on a daily basis. I mean do you actually know any indigent people at all? Not just people who are perhaps going through temporary poverty due to education or something, but people who are generationally poor.

If people are going to work they have to be provided with jobs. Right-wing governments have no answer to this at all, in the Western world they seem intent on sending them all overseas. So what are you going to do about the rest of the state funded poor Brendan? Whip them and send them on to the next parish? Your ideas do have a touch of that mediaeval flavour.

Davo Stevens said...

Does it ever cross the mind of the self-righteous, that we as taxpayers are subsidising all of those on the minimum wage? You know, the wages your rich mates pay their long-suffering workers because they are too stingy to pay a decent living wage! We have to subsidise their medical expenses, accommodation expenses and other costs.

I repeat what I have said many times; if you don't want to pay people properly then don't employ them -- do the bloody work yourself. Why should I, as a taxpayer be subsidising their wages?

It's interesting to note that the Govt. is pouring $47B into the re-build of Christchurch which begs the question -- why did it take an earthquake to get them to put money into the economy?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Chris, all ill feelings about your post a while ago, being one of doom and gloom about Labour's chances are forgiven. I agree, there are major challenges, and sadly, Labour and Cunliffe have not listened to many of the ones that used to vote them. It seems that Cunliffe is himself now not listening to the supporters and activists that helped him get voted Labour's leader.

While there is some talk about the working poor, it is limited what Labour seems to be willing to offer them, and there is NONE even mentioned, what Labour would do to help people on benefits better their situation and chances.

Indeed, Labour's record on welfare is not a good one, as in 2004 they abolished the special benefit, and in 2007 they brought in other reforms that tightened entitlements, and brought in additional requirements not only for sole parents, but also for sick and disabled, to make efforts to become "work ready".

That was also when MSD hired Dr David Bratt as Principal Health Advisor, who was given an "army" of underlings, who would put additional scrutiny on sick and disabled, question GP's assessments and start put pressure on many sick and disabled to look for work.

The following presentation was one of many that Bratt would use once National got into power, and he seems to have been set loose to chase the alleged "malingerers" now, using questionable "science" and methods to argue, that most illness is nothing but "illness belief". He likens benefit dependence to "drug depdendence" (see pages 13, 20, 21 and 35):

There is more info on how beneficiaries are now virtually persecuted, having their medical conditions challenged repeatedly, although they suffer from permanent illness and disability:




Designated doctors have been used to do the front line "reassessing", and now there is talk of outsourced medical assessments like in the UK (ATOS for DWP).

I have met many people facing that, and also being just unemployed or sole parents on benefits, and most are not at all motivated to vote, they must make up a substantial number of the people that did not vote last general election.

Labour seem to simply sideline them, throwing away potential votes. But it is not surprising, as few on the fringes of society have any faith in Labour being much better to them than this nasty government. Voting a lesser evil is never much motivating.

There are yet many others - many young, working, studying or doing other things, and they have no faith in politics anymore.

Now, reaching them may make a difference, but they want to be heard and respected and involved. So there you are, you are spot on with this, Chris, it is a very depressing scenario.

Anonymous said...

Finally a political commentator gets it.

About one third of voters have no stake in this society, no experience of a government or opposition that sees them as anything other than a political football to kick for cheap headlines now and then and no expectation that anything is going to change.

As long as this continues the pool of voters will continue to shrink and as long as political parties continue to be obsessed with the centre of the remaining voters policies will continue to move to the right and as long as that happens the numbers who are politically alienated will continue to grow.

We can all look forward to the day in the not too distant future when the political parties seek the approval of the centre of the one per cent who still bother voting.

Nic the NZer said...

I think Brendon is just speaking to his own experience on how to extract yourself from poverty. To miss quote,

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband."

Jigsaw said...

Guerilla Surgeon-you seem to think that everyone who disagrees with you has read nothing and can't reason. This seems to indicate a very superior attitude. You have no idea of the experience of anyone who comments here-best stick to the arguments. The people who you describe haven't been made like that by successive right-wing governments, they have largely done it to themselves not at all helped by all governments who have made them increasingly dependent on the state. Welfare is dependence and rots their ability to help themselves in any way. Even in the north with its great climate how many vege gardens do you see behind rundown houses surrounded by wrecked cars and spouting SKY dishes. You don't want to tell them to grab their bootstraps but just to feel sorry for themselves. Sure they have become stunted and the left wants to keep them that way.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jigsaw, you should perhaps not be so quick to judge. My statement about Brendan not reading anything was in response to his assertion that I didn't read past his name. Beyond that I must say that Brendan if he reads at all, doesn't read beyond stuff that fits in with his prejudices. I do, though it sometimes makes me want to puke. I regularly read Faux news articles for instance. And whatever I can get for free from other right-wing news websites.
Your other statement about people being made dependent on the state is interesting, considering that when there are jobs available, people take them. That would seem to suggest to me that there are very few people who want to live on a benefit. Not saying there aren't some, but it doesn't get you a particularly good life, unless you're supplementing it in some other fashion. As far as veggie gardens in the north goes is not a good example. Friend of mine – employed I might say – tried growing veggies in Northland and it doesn't always work considering there is some sort of hardpan just below the surface which you need dynamite to get through. Vegetables don't necessarily grow there very well. But even if they could, have you asked them why they don't? You're just assuming. And the left wants to keep them that way? Jesus wept that's too stupid to respond to almost. Assuming they are "that way" if they were "raised up" they'd vote left. Maybe not labour mind.

Nic the NZer said...

@Gurilla Surgeon, I'm with the Jigsaw on this one. Brendon's question has nothing to do with alleviating poverty, it is literally

"to reduce the number of welfare dependent, State impoverished Mary's of this world? (and their children)"

Well the state can't solve the problem of these people's poverty (obviously the implication of state impoverished is the state is not paying Mary enough to keep her out of poverty) by paying more because that would make them more welfare dependent. On the other hand kicking them off benefits is clearly going to make them only the more impoverished (and their children). This seems to be an insoluble problem Brendon has posed, in fact it appears to be the crux of why Conservative anti-democratic small government philosophy does nothing for the impoverished.

Sorry Brendon, time to take responsibility for your own ideas and not coming begging to the left for new ones. If conservative philosophy has nothing to offer the impoverished it appears to be time to give it up (so that the impoverished can be helped).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"to reduce the number of welfare dependent, State impoverished Mary's of this world? (and their children)"
Nic – not quite sure of the point you are making, but the answer to Brendan's quandary is obviously eugenics :-). A good, old-fashioned right-wing solution, that like most right-wing solutions won't work.

Anonymous said...

I've got a Japanese friend with a wife and kid (and residency). When Japanese tourism took a dive he did the best trade course he could. Unfortunately he wasn't taken on by anyone as tradesmen don't have time (or incentive) to train an apprentice on the job (language ability would have been a disadvantage also). The government puts production first encouraging a just in time skill acquirement through immigration. Now he's driving city buses (and paying a mortgage). Another Japanese (in similar circumstances) has been doing the same but is off on stress leave: it isn't fun dodging traffic, timetables and the worst our liberal society can throw at these working people.

Anonymous said...

Regarding eugenics.W.I.N.Z.does have in its continuous reveiwing of its polocies (advising) solo mums, especially the young, that there is available contraception either pill or injection available.Also they advise, that pregnancy while receiving a solo parent benefit, does not mean that they may receive additional support, on the birth of that child.

We live in a democracy,with all the freedom "within reason"that does not negate its humanitarian or social care,hence the rules of our laws,laws that we elect our Governments to abide and care for. Given that we give our Governments, that cherished control and rule over us ,we give them leaway to rule with we hope,compassion that cares for our children and well being.

Our present Government,are lacking in regard to compassion in the area of Social Development.All they seem to have is nothing short of contempt for those, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times,just their age old party line of benefit bashing.

Welfare dependency so called, will always be around, as long as Governments do not have the political will to tackle the issue, aside from our present rule of bash and pillory.

Anonymous said...

Chris,are you going to have a regular weekly gig on the Willie show,or are you going to be alternating way the ex Labour Party President.