Labour’s plans to address child poverty offer hope for positive change after decades of successive governments ignoring the issue and allowing it to grow out of control. While the bold proposals outlined are a bit vague, they seem genuine in their intentions. On the other hand, National pay lip service to the importance of addressing the issue while obscuring the causes and potential solutions for the issue. While they seem so concerned about the importance of targets, if National and their supporters actually cared for those living in poverty the social policies of the last nine years would have demonstrated just a little bit of compassion. Instead, they showed a willingness to do nothing but appear to address the issue.
Maybe people are simply unaware of what causes poverty, but that seems unlikely. There is enough evidence and information out there, but instead we only seem to hear the same old myths, half-truths and excuses repeated over and over again. “People are just lazy, and if they worked harder they could escape poverty”. “If they didn’t spend all their money on ciggies and booze, they could afford proper food”. “They’re dole bludgers that don’t want to get a real job”. I could go on, but you get the picture. Understanding why people buy into these myths helps us understand why such negative attitudes towards those in poverty prevail.
Myth 1: The poor need to work harder
Critics of compassionate social policies love to frame their opposition in economic terms, citing fears of potential impacts on national debt and GDP to justify their stance. The fixation on money trumps any concern for their fellow people, and such uncritical perspectives on the economy prevent them from acknowledging the role the financial system plays in perpetuating poverty. Suitable housing, electricity, food, water and transport are essential human rights everyone except hardcore libertarians can surely agree on, so when people are struggling to afford such basic rights, clearly things are not right with the way wealth is distributed, because there is certainly enough money to meet everyone’s needs as evidenced by recent reports on the state of economic inequality.
The important question to ask here is why have we allowed things to become so unfair? As mentioned earlier, one of the great myths we hold to is that if you work hard, you will be rewarded fairly. This belief drives us to perform to higher standards in our workplaces and fuels our ambitions to climb the ladder and gain new positions and responsibilities, which of course come with appropriate financial compensation. What this myth doesn’t do is define what “hard work” actually is. Some people can work their butts off for 40+ hours at a factory and still stay on the minimum wage or thereabouts for years, sacrificing quality time at home simply to make ends meet and provide for their families. That is hard work, yet those people will likely never by millionaires unless they win Lotto.
The truth is that it is not always about having a great work ethic, but about having an often single-minded ambition to accumulate as much wealth as possible, one of the sociopathic core tenets of capitalism. For those on top of the ladder, the “hard work” myth creates compliant and diligent employees that are willing to do more for less in the hopes of advancement, thereby maximising their profits. Whether it is running a company or investing in stocks and the housing market, simply having money allows one to make more money. As the ultra-rich continue to hoard the means of producing more wealth, the working poor are deprived of such opportunities to escape poverty because money flows up, but it doesn’t trickle down despite what many right-wingers would have us believe. For example, earlier generations snapped up property when houses were affordable and continue to make money today by renting or flipping properties, a luxury not shared by the poor and later generations because the market was made unaffordable by this drive to build absurd “property portfolios”. Disregarding the moral argument that housing is a human right that should not be commodified anyway, everyone in my generation should be outraged simply because the ladder into the housing market was pulled up by those who had already accumulated property to service their greed.
To be clear, none of the points raised above signal a flaw in the capitalist system, rather, they are simply the embodiment of its core intentions. This system has thrived by convincing many of us that the problems are of our own making, which is why blame is laid on the individual’s choices and actions rather than the system that created the poverty in the first place. That is why tales of “sacrifice” in order to buy a house are forced upon us (See Exhibits A, B, C and D), to show us that we need to change our behaviour and stop being so lazy, a narrative that favours the wealthy and the status quo.
Myth 2: We all have the same opportunities
There exists another similarly damaging myth, which is the idea that everyone in New Zealand has the same experiences and opportunities as everyone else. This construction of New Zealand as an egalitarian society has long been a source of pride for patriotic Kiwis, albeit one with little basis in fact. As discussed above, economic disparities exist by design and have done so for years, growing worse during the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s of which New Zealand is considered one of the more aggressive adopters. However, there are also wider social factors that influence poverty which are often overlooked by the privileged. Consider education for example. Formal education has long been considered a pathway out of poverty, however, jobs that pay well often require high levels of literacy and knowledge in math and science, things which can be difficult for those who are struggling with poverty to gain. As a result, they are often forced to turn to low-skilled labour like retail and factory work, jobs that do not normally pay very well and keep people trapped in poverty.
There are perfectly explainable reasons why attaining education can be difficult for those living in poverty. The first, is that our Western education system often fails to facilitate learning in a way that is appropriate to those from other cultures. It assumes a homogeneous capacity and desire for learning, and although our national curriculum is progressive and encourages flexible teaching for students of diverse backgrounds, it’s application has not gone far enough to genuinely include and accommodate everyone yet. This is compounded by recent reports of racism directed towards students that denigrated them and made them feel like they can’t succeed, attitudes shared by many Maori and Pasifika students, the same demographics who unfortunately bear the brunt of poverty. Such reports are not hyperbole; as a former educator I have spoken to young people who can articulate all too clearly how the racist sentiments of middle-class New Zealanders make them feel like they can’t do well in life and forces them to question why they should even bother with school. If you were those young people, why would you want to be part of a society that treats you that way, that looks down on you and makes jokes about you for being poor? Because of this, is it a surprise that Maori and Pasifika have lower levels of educational achievement?
For argument’s sake, let us again assume that the unseen issue, in this case racism, is not a problem. What other barriers are there to education? For one, poverty usually means a lack of food. Strangely enough, children find it hard to pay attention in class when their stomach is rumbling because they haven’t eaten all day, which again is a reality and not hyperbole. You can’t learn if you can’t eat, and sometimes those who are eating are not eating the right food. Healthier foods like fruit, vegetables and nuts improve brain health, but because they are expensive compared to processed foods, such benefits are experienced by those who can afford it and the detriments by those who cannot. Poor nutrition also leads to sickness, which when combined with ongoing illnesses stemming from substandard housing, leads to time off school and results in students being left even further behind. It is at this point in the discussion that condescending remarks about budgeting and food planning are raised, but when the decision is between quantity and quality, opting for a higher quantity of food and the expense of nutritional value is understandable when you and your family are hungry.
Beyond physical struggles, pressure from others affect an individual’s attitude towards education and society. Schools, like the wider geographic areas in which people reside and spend their time, provide countless opportunities for people to be influenced by those around them. We make friends with people we relate to and who share similar values and beliefs, so when people who share disdain for education and a discontent with society itself form bonds with each other, they are less likely to conform to the conventional idea of ‘success’ that is forced upon them. Processes like gentrification that displace the poor and essentially segregate suburbs according to socioeconomic class exacerbate both inequality and the levels and nature of influence different groups experience. The adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” becomes more truthful as one gets older and enters the workforce, and it is certainly more advantageous to reside in affluent and connected neighbourhoods than those plagued by crime, gang-related activity and poverty.
It seems we forget that the people we are, including the values and beliefs that define us and guide our actions, are shaped by our experiences and influences. I come from a family heavily involved in the education sector, and clearly those shared values rubbed off on me. I’m sure many others could also say their interests and values were influenced by those around them. With that in mind, it helps explain why those who have never experienced poverty like to blame those who live in poverty for their own misfortunes. They cannot comprehend that the pressures and struggles people face were different to their own, and empathy is difficult we fail to acknowledge that people think and see the world differently to us.
A context in which this mentality is apparent is when dealing with drug and gambling addictions. If you are poor, some ask, why are you wasting your money on pokies when you could buy food? If people understood the nature of addiction, they would know that merely berating people does nothing to cure their state of mind, if anything, they will become more resistant. More than that, addiction to gambling among the poorer parts of society is no accident, for gambling machines are placed deliberately in poorer communities where they make more money, with little regard given for the social costs. This uncaring attitude towards addiction is also demonstrated in our views on substance abuse, and again we ignore why liquor stores are more often than not placed in less affluent neighbourhoods. This is made worse by the twisted desire held primarily by older generations to simply incarcerate drug users rather than dedicate funding to proper rehabilitation and the lack of discourse about why drugs are so appealing to the poor; chiefly because it offers an escape from the unpleasant realities of their lives.
These cold attitudes suggest that perhaps blame is warranted after all, but it should not be directed at those who are struggling but at those who throw stones from their seats of privilege. Those that say people should stop making bad decisions or blame them for their situations are part of the problem. Voicing disdain for the poor might offer momentary satisfaction and vindication of one’s life choices, but what good does that accomplish, apart from showing everyone else how out of touch and ignorant you are? To truly understand what people go through, we need to step out of our bubbles, shed our preconceived ideas of how others should live their lives and learn to listen and understand what people go through.