Monday, December 9, 2013

Eastgate is probably Christchurch's most low-rent shopping mall, and it is my local. I make jokes about shopping in Linwood, where people wear hoodies and pyjama bottoms to the mall. But at Eastgate it is safe to be obese, or very old, or Samoan. You don't have to move very fast. It is OK to hang around for a while, and it is small enough for the shop keepers to know each other and have some collegiality. There are few big stores and big names, apart from McDonalds, and no flash brands. You don't see Gucci, or Merrill, or Bose.

Even here the world of wealth is on display. You can buy a diamond ring, or a pot of $100 face cream. You can spend a couple of hundred dollars on clothes without trying.

I figure most of this is beyond many of the people who shop there.

This week a report was issued about monitoring child poverty in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Its authors are the Children's Commissioner, the JR McKenzie Trust, and Otago University. They crunched the numbers themselves, because they were concerned about the government's apparent lack of interest in social research. Their findings have been widely reported even in mainstream media.

265,000 children, or 25% of the child population, live in poverty. 180,000 go without basic necessities. 10% live at the hardest end. 3 in 5 children living in poverty will live this way for many years. The epidemiologists who did the research talked about the effect of this on the health system. The Children's Commissioner talked about how this affects the economy and the social climate. Here in New Zealand, we have a large body of academics and public servants who are increasingly at odds with government policy, and who are now willing to appear partisan, to make large statements about obvious growing gap between rich and poor.

I am still surprised at the reactions of many ordinary people to this report, as well as ongoing investigations by the Campbell Live TV programme. There seem to be two main strands of thought. One says that, well, we work hard and we are poor too. Fair enough. The other says that the poor are at fault. They should have fewer children. They should not eat junk food. They are probably addicts. . They exploit the benefit systems and perpetuate a cycle of dependence and ignorance. They spend their money on TVs and Playstations instead of food.

I am of the generation that had state help. I was raised partly in social housing. I was unemployed a lot during my youth, and managed on welfare benefits without hardship. I was given a temporary paid job at the university, and thought maybe I was brainy enough to study. I did two degrees paid for by the state, and worked part time enough to manage in comfort. Once I got a grown up job, the state funded a cheap loan into my first house. We raised our child on mostly one income. We are not one-above-average-income-per-person rich but damn well rich enough . And lucky enough to be borne aloft by the last bright bubble of the welfare state for which New Zealand was once famous. I am not stupid with money but I am not smart either. I don't have to be. I have the luxury of being able to think about other things.

Poverty in New Zealand is about food and shelter and warmth and health. It is also about relative inclusiveness and being able to participate in society and have some choices. When you are very poor, you can't think about much else. Financial stress overwhelms you. You can't do the math because it doesn't add up. There is no budget advice to give. Any small mistake follows you for ever. You can't afford to register your car, so you get fines which turn into debts that criminalise you. Your cell phone broke and you can't afford a new one, so they can't contact you and you don't know about the appointment and they cut your benefit. For the lack of the nail, the shoe was lost, and so on.

Being poor, especially if you are on welfare, is a great opportunity to practise the great virtues. You are expected to manage the Byzantine labyrinth that is the welfare system with perseverance and determination. You are expected to wait for hours with dignity and patience. You are expected to be scrupulously honest and trustworthy if you want to retain your benefit payments. And always, always, you must exercise the virtues of self discipline and restraint. To survive at welfare level, whether or not you are in paid work, you must never buy ice cream, or take a holiday, or go to a movie, or buy that dress. Never make an impulsive purchase. Never get ripped off. Never say, oh sod it, let's just do it. And you must be aware that the minutiae of your lives are being monitored, so you must always act with care and temperance, in case you are discovered thinking or acting on something else other than the whimsical demands of the welfare system.

I wish I could always be so virtuous. I confess I have been known to lose my temper and cry. I have lacked tolerance in dealing with organisations, especially when I have been tired or stressed. I have made unwise purchases. I have bought stupid shit on impulse and regretted it. Things even stupider than a kangaroo onesie!  And I confess, there have been times I have eaten too much.

Not that anybody minds or even notices. The welfare system does not mind if I smoke weed or sleep with whole football teams. I am rich enough to avoid the benefit system and free to indulge as is my libertarian right. As long as I consume I have done my civic duty.
If I criticised people for being poor I would be holding them to moral standards greater than to which I have achieved. This is the other side of the argument about the morals and values of the poor. Our Prime Minister described this society as 'aspirational'. I think he means the poor should aspire to the values of the rich. But the rich don't need to be morally virtuous. If we want to acquire virtue, perhaps we should look to our expectations of those 'least' in our world.

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