Emily Keddell: Miranda's got the right word for it

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Obfuscatory - it's a great term for right-wing attempts to link work and poverty, writes Emily Keddel

Actress Miranda Hart... it's a pity John Key isn't as funny as she is when he talks about work and poverty.
Actress Miranda Hart... it's a pity John Key isn't as funny as she is when he talks about work and poverty.

Obfuscatory. A word I want to repeat, Miranda-like, because it feels so good dropping out of my mouth. Obfuscatory. It's also a great word to describe the mantra, adopted by right-wing governments the world over, who claim "work is the solution to poverty".

In the UK it's the Tory right, in response to outrage over foodbank use. In New Zealand, John Key keeps repeating it in response to any question about measuring or, God forbid, doing something about poverty in this country. If only he was as funny as television's Miranda when he says it.

What does obfuscatory mean? To generally mislead or muddy the waters when describing something, or, more formally: "To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand."

On this count, the statement that work is the solution to poverty - hereafter referred to as "the statement" - is guilty as charged on two counts.

First, it's simply inaccurate. Paid work, sadly, is not sufficient to guarantee relief from poverty - at least 40 per cent of children in poverty, for example, have parents in paid employment. Secondly, work is the solution to poverty only if conditions exist that create poverty without work and make work a solution to it - and neither has much to do with one's employment status per se.

So, if it's conditional on other factors, rather than work itself, you could say "the statement" is a logical fallacy, because it implies that one thing (work) causes the other (exit from poverty) when in fact there is a third, much more influential factor that causes this correlation.

This is fallacy logic because poverty is, in the main, controlled by five things - the benefit rate, the minimum wage rate, the tax credit system (Working for Families), child support regulations, and the living costs faced by households (which can differ significantly depending on location).

It all sounds like a big yawn, I know (picture Miranda, slumped on her bed, with her "zombie face" on), but these are the real culprits when it comes to poverty causes - and solutions.

These factors are invisible in "the statement", yet they are much more influential in solutions to poverty than simply work in and of itself.

What controls these more influential factors? Primarily, government regulation. It's the government, not work that therefore can and should provide some solutions, as work is not some standalone, independent thing, unaffected by the context in which it happens.

It sounds a little crazy, but saying it's work itself, and not what work gets you, is obfuscatory, because income levels are not related to only being in paid employment, but the whole package of payments coming into each household.

For the poor especially, this package of payments is controlled directly by government and its priorities.

As any OECD report on the subject shows, paid work can alleviate poverty, but only in countries where wages are high, tax credits for low-income families are considerable, there is high quality, low cost childcare, child support is at least partly paid to beneficiaries, and sole parents are treated in the same way as any other household.

We have this last provision for working sole parents, but we don't for beneficiary sole parents, who receive only two of the three components of Working for Families and no direct child support payments unless they are in the extremely rare position of having an ex-partner whose child support calculation exceeds the benefit rate.

For lone parents in work, or two parent families with one person in work, the tax credits provided via Working for Families are not enough, especially in cities where housing costs are high.

All these complex factors are invisible in "the statement".

What would the Government say in response? Probably that it's the economy, not the state, that controls these factors. Obfuscating again, because the household balance of payments against costs is not only an inevitable consequence of the economy but entirely within government control.

Well, mostly. It is not a self-evident truth that the the economy must drive all other aspects of a nation's political and social life. The prioritisation of a free-market economy is based on a political philosophy that, like others, is a matter of belief, values and moral choices.

As John Ralston Saul points out in his book The Unconscious Civilisation, acceptance of the onslaught of classic liberal economic theory is not necessarily a given, nor is it an uncontestable driver of modern society - rather, attachment to it by those in power is.

So let's not obfuscate any longer. Work alone is not the solution to poverty. Government regulation of minimum wages, an adequate and non-discriminatory tax credit system, the passing on of at least a proportion of child support payments, job creation, accessible quality childcare, and reasonable housing costs are the solutions.

Obfuscatory. Obfuscatory. Miranda would burst into song about now ... probably a sad one.

• Emily Keddell is a senior lecturer in the department of sociology, gender and social work at the University of Otago

- NZ Herald

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