Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Who cares about poverty?

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Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

In the last few days there has been a wealth of evidence and examples pointing to the existence of widespread poverty in New Zealand. Given that growing inequality and poverty has been a significant problem for decades now - under both Labour and National governments - is it any wonder that it tends to be put in the 'too hard' basket.

In Poverty issues boring public: academic, Eileen Goodwin's Otago Daily Times article reports my observation that although there was a surge in public interest and concern about issues of economic inequality and poverty following the global financial crisis, for various reasons that concern seems to be dissipating. Similarly, the disturbing statistics on poverty we have heard in the last week are also likely be pushed aside as the public struggles to see how any of the recent reports and examples will actually lead to real change. It seems that the problem of poverty - especially child poverty - isn't nearly politicised enough to force any real change. The best media summary of this is Ben Heather's One in four Kiwi children living in poverty and the main talking point to come out of the study is the statistic that there are now one in four New Zealand children in poverty, with ten percent living in 'severe poverty'.

Damning reports and articles

At the centre of attention at the moment is the Children's Commissioner's first annual Child Poverty Monitor report - which you can read here. The best media summary of this is Ben Heather's One in four Kiwi children living in poverty and the main talking point to come out of the study is the statistic that there are now one in four New Zealand children in poverty.

TV3's Campbell Live has been running some very strong items about the issue in recent days, and the most important is Lachlan Forsyth's 6-minute report, The truth about child poverty in NZ. Also worth watching are Tristram Clayton's 8-minute report, Behind the scenes at the foodbank, John Sellwood and Whena Owen's 10-minute report, Christchurch's state housing crisis, and Rebecca Wright's 4-minute report, Feeding kids through school gardens. See also, TV3's 2-minute video report, Govt failing with poverty - Children's Commissioner.

For other interesting videos on the issues, see the animated infographic series on Solutions to child poverty in New Zealand, which are the ones recommended by the Children's Commissioner in association with Auckland University.

Another damning report on child poverty was also released last week - this time from the United Nations - see Newswire's NZ still failing children - UN report. You can download the Unicef report: Kids missing out. Not only does the report complain about the 'estimated 270,000 children living in poverty' but the failures of successive governments to implement commitments to children that New Zealand signed up to in an international agreement 20 years ago.

The impact of Government welfare reforms have also been in the spotlight, after the Ministry of Social Development released information on the number of benefits they've cut under the new arrangements - see Ben Heather's Children suffering, say benefit cut critics.

There have also been more reports about the continued hardships facing families and the poor in Canterbury at the moment. The Christchurch Press, in particular, has been putting the spotlight on the ill-affects of poverty, with some hard-hitting stories such as Ashleigh Stewart's Quiet Xmas on struggle street, Olivia Carville's Hunt family fights on in Waltham Park, Marc Greenhill and Ashleigh Stewart's Human rights report targets family's post-quake plight, and Jody O'Callaghan's Counsellors 'rushed off feet'. All of these are worth reading and paint a very bleak picture of the lives of many New Zealanders.

And, of course, the problem is not confined to quake-ravaged Christchurch. The cost of living and housing is a serious problem in many areas of the country. See for example, Alanah Eriksen's Cost of home dream in Auckland - 19 incomes.

The Political responses

The Government has largely dismissed the damning reports, with the Prime Minister emphasising that poverty was at a similar level under the last Labour Government (at a time of much greater prosperity), Bill English pointing out that National has actually tried to ameliorate the problem, and Paula Bennett describing the child poverty report as merely a re-packaging of existing government material. To see Bill English's response - as well as that of child poverty researcher Liz Craig - watch TV3's 9-minute item, Health stats prove child poverty is real - doctor.

John Key has also responded to some of the concerns by penning an opinion piece in the Herald - see: Kids of today offer bright future for NZ. This was quickly parodied by Scott Yorke - see: John Key: I believe the children are our future.

There has been plenty of disgruntlement with the Government's reaction. The Southland Times has taken National to task in its editorial today, Now about that 'proud record'. It calls for a more coherent response, 'in a more comprehensive way that honestly squares up to the sheer scale of need, and calibrates its priorities off that'. Similarly, a Herald editorial says that the 'Children's Commissioner is right to give us this reality check for Christmas', and worries that the Government isn't listening. The editorial criticises the Government for refusing to fund the type of measurement of poverty in this latest report: 'A cynic might suggest it sometimes suits the Government to have no reliable measure of the problems facing the nation. If ministers can't quantify a problem, then neither can their opponents' - see: Christmas tidings of little joy. See also, the Press editorial, Poverty should worry us all.

The Child Poverty Action Group has welcomed the Child Poverty Monitor report, but emphasised the need for change - see Donna Wynd and Nikki Turner's Time for action to bring down the high cost of being poor. They plead for the report not to be ignored, and for electioneering political parties to outline what they will do about the problem.

Much of the response amongst partisans on the left involves simply blaming the current government, with little or no awareness of the role played by their own parties in the chronic problem of poverty. See, for example, Greg Presland's What chance is there of a bipartisan approach to child poverty?. There seems to be widespread reluctance amongst leftwing activists to face up to the inadequacy of their own side in dealing with poverty, or at least to stop causing the problem.

In contrast, outside of parliamentary politics, some anti-poverty campaigners are taking to the streets - see Ben Irwin's Angry protesters attend National's Xmas function.

But it's not entirely hopeless. There are some moves within parliamentary politics to take up the issues - for example, filmmaker Bruce Bryan has been surveying MPs on some specific measures to combat poverty and is finding the tide is moving in his direction - see Simon Collins' Child welfare policies gain support.

And there is some occasional good news to come out of this current bout of bad news stories about hardship in New Zealand. The publicised plight of a homeless family has meant that they've been able to move out of their tent in a public park - see Georgina Sylianou and Olivia Carville's Hunt family get home. This has happened without the family in question having to take up one blogger's advice of moving into one of Gerry Brownlee's four Christchurch properties - see No Right Turn's National's New Zealand.

There has been some questioning of the dominant narrative about poverty in New Zealand. Most notably, on the right, blogger Peter Cresswell has challenged the poverty report's measurement and some of the solutions being proposed - see: You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money. Similarly, see Newstalk ZB broadcaster Andrew Dickens' The definition of poverty.

And David Farrar has not only questioned some accepted facts in the debate, but also proposed that more attention be given to 'social mobility', which he says is more meaningful and shows the situation is not as severe as is assumed - see: Stats Chat on inequality and Nonsense stats.

Finally, for a different measure of poverty in New Zealand, see my blogpost, The politics of poverty in New Zealand - images.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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