Kerre McIvor

Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre McIvor: Greed hardens Kiwi hearts

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Beggars are a visible reminder that not all of us are lucky enough to live decent, comfortable lives. Photo / Michael Craig
Beggars are a visible reminder that not all of us are lucky enough to live decent, comfortable lives. Photo / Michael Craig

When did this country become so mean? Did it begin in the 1980s, when greed became good and success became more about what you had than the sort of person you were?

Was it when economists started subscribing to the Chicago school of economics doctrine, advocating a free-market approach, minimal government intervention and letting people take care of themselves?

It's a doctrine that could also be described as the law of the jungle because, from my observations on safari in Africa, the animals are the perfect examples of free marketeers. If they want to eat, they have to work to get their meal.

They are in fierce competition with one another and for every animal that eats, another will go hungry.

And if you are weak or have the misfortune to suffer an injury, no one will look after you.

You will be driven from the herd or the pack; you will wander the savannah isolated, hungry and angry, and eventually you will die.

Works fine in the Serengeti but it's not really the perfect model for a civilised society.

New Zealand wasn't always so selfish. We used to pride ourselves on our egalitarian society. The local school principal didn't look down on the caretaker; the factory hand didn't feel a lesser human being when compared with the foreman.

But my, how times have changed. Time and again I've heard from talkback callers that people who are struggling to get by doing menial work on the minimum wage, or who have the temerity to be on a benefit, should just get on and improve themselves.

If poor people had the gumption to retrain and get higher qualifications, according to many letter-writers to the editor, they'd be able to get better jobs that would pay them more money, thus obviating the need for the state to offer financial support.

When it was mooted that children from low-decile schools should be offered free food, as far too many kids were going hungry and finding it difficult to concentrate on their lessons, there was a chorus of disapproval from those who felt that such a scheme was simply allowing parents to opt out of their responsibilities.

Feeding hungry kids would just perpetuate welfare dependency, according to the naysayers.

Again, that's a relatively new attitude for this country. We used to feel that we were all responsible for the most vulnerable in our society - now it's all about looking after yourself.

So I suppose it's not really surprising that the Auckland Council wants to introduce a bylaw banning beggars. There's a draft proposal to ban people asking for food or money in a manner that is likely to intimidate or cause a nuisance.

I hope that includes professional charity collectors, who I find far more intimidating than the poor souls sitting in doorways or beside ATMs.

I can feel sympathy for a person who appears genuinely down on their luck; I'm not quite so empathetic to those shiny-faced young people, all faux bonhomie and toothy smiles, wanting to shake me down for one deserving cause after another.

I might be more inclined to give them cash if they were doing it because they genuinely believed in their cause - such as the collectors from Surf Life Saving NZ or the Breast Cancer Foundation - but collectors who are paid by the hour can be aggressive and confrontational if you don't buy into their spiel.

According to the council, there are five complaints about beggars a month - hardly sufficient to warrant the time and debate this draft bylaw has generated.

I don't like seeing beggars on the street, not anywhere in the world. I'd like to think we could all live relatively decent lives but beggars are a visible sign that some people are doing it tough.

Maybe it's because of their addictions, maybe because of other frailties - whatever the reason, I'm sure nobody set out in life thinking they would end up begging in the streets.

Times and the people have changed. We didn't used to have beggars. But then we didn't used to have callous, ostentatious rich pricks, either.

- Herald on Sunday

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