How can any society regard itself as moral when it allows a quarter or more of its children, with their families, to live in poverty, in cold, damp and overcrowded houses, with inadequate food, and suffering from illnesses such as asthma, rheumatic fever or TB?
Or turns a blind eye to children ashamed to go to school in worn-out clothing, without lunch or money for a class trip, or mothers forced to clean buildings in the middle of the night on rock-bottom wages?
How can we allow kids to have the best years of their lives ruined by the stain of poverty and the shame of social exclusion, with parents denied the natural joy and pride of being able to adequately provide for and enjoy some of the simple pleasures like a day at the beach?
Few would subscribe to Ayn Rand's philosophy that "man's highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness", but the majority of us are reluctant to support major changes in the status quo.
New Zealanders are not ungenerous. We respond willingly to appeals to support a child who needs money for life-saving surgery, or a tourist couple assaulted and robbed of everything they have. But when it comes to the nation's attitudes and policies, a very different mindset takes over.
In a TV3 programme in 2013, Duncan Garner and Guyon Espiner led two teams in a debate on child poverty: was it the result of poor parenting and bad budgeting, or was it a lack of income? One team was from the well-heeled commentariat of the "pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps" brigade; the other included Children's Commissioner Russell Wills with input from budget advisers and foodbank operators who know the reality of poverty on a daily basis.
There was an obvious disjunction between theory and fact. A vote from studio and TV audiences at the end revealed that 63 per cent believed poverty to be the result of poor parenting and budgeting skills. Garner summarised the vote as "the view of middle New Zealand".
His use of the word "middle" was significant. If almost two-thirds of middle New Zealand believe the poor have enough money, there is no political incentive to change anything. It is not just the Government that is responsible for policy: every voting Kiwi affects the well-being of those at the margins of society.
In terms of inequality, New Zealand ranks 22nd of 34 OECD countries (where 34th is the most unequal). In unequal societies the affluent and successful strive to keep ahead and protect their margin. For those who lag behind there is a sense of failure that too often leads to depression, anger and compensating behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime and imprisonment.
It is popular to describe the behaviour of this latter group as anti-social, but in truth anti-social behaviour starts with the affluent who minimise their tax payments and thus avoid contributing to the social fabric. It is to be found in politicians who know votes can be won by appealing to people's financial self-interest, and suggesting the poor have only themselves to blame. The behaviour of voters who support such policies rather than opting for the common good is also anti-social.
The bullying of fellow students in schools and employees in workplaces, leading to high rates of youth suicide, is another likely indicator of how inequality destroys social cohesion. Not just the poor are affected.
Reflecting on New Zealand's very high rate of incarceration, Victoria University criminologist John Pratt questions whether there is a sufficient level of trust and egalitarianism in New Zealand society, and hence the political will, to make changes in our own penal system, despite its manifest failings.
One barrier to change is the bunker mentality which prevents a holistic examination of processes which cut costs in one area, only to see them blow out in another. Inadequate household income, for example, drives up the costs of illness caused by poor nutrition or overcrowded houses. Unemployment leads to increased welfare payments, drug and alcohol addiction, violence, crime, vandalism, mental illness and suicides.
It costs the nation almost $1 billion annually to keep 8,700 prisoners locked up in jail. Suppose that money were spent on our children and young people long before they became disillusioned and anti-social. Money spent to bring life and hope to the next generation is morally preferable to spending money to sustain lives blighted by public neglect.
Thirty years ago, New Zealand was a much more equal society. It could be so again. But it will take a huge shift in the mindset of the majority to undo the impact of the forces of individualism which have eroded our sense of mutuality and the common good and turned us into one of the most unequal societies in the western world. Changing this state of affairs is a moral challenge to us all.
• Richard Randerson is a retired Anglican bishop and former church social justice officer.
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