Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Impoverished Nation

I had  a conversation recently with someone who refused to acknowledge that there is 'actual poverty' in NZ because people aren't starving. This person's belief was that unless a person is starving, dressed in rags, and living on the streets, they are not poor, they are just not as well off as some others.  Moreover, the fact that this person is so much better off than most other Kiwis is all down to her having made good choices. She chose to pay attention at school, get a good education, work hard, buy a house etc etc. 

She completely blanked out the considerable privilege that underpinned ALL her choices. Only child of well off parents, living in a warm and dry house with her own bedroom, going to a prestigious school, being helped through university, coming of age at a time of full employment, inheriting a signifiant sum of money from her grandparents and standing to inherit even more from her parents - in those circumstances there is nothing remarkable or praiseworthy about making good choices. She is not to be condemned for her situation but she is at fault for believing it reflects anything but a good fortune that is denied to the majority of other human beings and a significant number of her fellow countrywomen and men.

We have had 3 decades of a steady erosion of workers' rights, the loss of collective bargaining and spread of individually negotiated contracts; the loss of and further threats to job security  - at its most vicious, the notorious zero hours contracts; an increase in unemployment and under-employment, and a removal or failure to maintain social safety nets. 

This has resulted not just in unemployment and homelessness but the return of large numbers of working poor many of whom have been priced out of the housing market, the inflation of which makes loads of money for banks and private investors - and with a reducing pool of social housing, are left hugely vulnerable.

We all have to have enough money to be able to live and to contribute in a meaningful way to society.  People have to look and to behave in certain ways in order to get and to keep a job. They need to be clean and reasonably well presented.  They need to be well enough nourished and rested to be able to do their job efficiently.  They have to travel to and from their job which, unless they can walk to work, will cost them money, and they may have to clothe and feed themselves while they are doing their work.  

This may be said to be the cost of subsistence which the workers' wages need to be cover.  The dependence of the working poor on state funds to maintain that essential subsistence level is never described or decried as low paying employers bludging off the state - although that precisely is what is happening. Instead, the blame is transferred to the low paid workers and to the unemployed.

Being unable to afford even the basics of life is and being forced into dependence on state benefits in a society which treats beneficiaries as somehow parasitic on the social body, is  iniquitous. 

The fact is that the poor spend ALL or close to all their income on the bare essentials - basic food, water, power, housing, clothing, transport - one reason why a blanket goods and services tax is so  unfair. 

They have nothing to very little to spend on desirables such as good quality and varied food, warm and dry housing with adequate space, supplementary education, good quality clothing, dental care and regular eye checks, helping their kids through university, having meals out, entertainment, holidays or building a reserve of savings

Luxuries - such as a large and expensively appointed home or second or third homes, servants,  overseas travel, new cars, boats, expensive clothing, appearance enhancement, private medical care, investments or other substantial savings - are completely beyond their grasp. 

And before anyone retreats into that clichéd and oh so distasteful argument that the poor could have more money for desirables if they just made the right choices - a few may be feckless but the vast majority are not. 

That aside, how disgusting is it, that people who have benefited from an advantageous place in the lineup for the race to success, or who made it because of some other sort of good fortune such as having inherited wealth,  feel justified in making those sort of judgments.  

Just what the hell do they know about the physical and psychological stresses of being poor in a society in which being poor shuts you out of so many opportunities and - if you are noticed at all - makes you the object of either pity or contempt?

No, we don't have people starving in the streets in NZ but we do have people who are poorly nourished. We have people whose reliance on high sugar foods has created a host of health and life threatening conditions, from dental caries to the outcomes of morbid obesity.  We have pensioners whose inability to heat their homes or eat well leads to fatal health problems that are never attributed to cold damp housing and poor nutrition.

We have increasing numbers of homeless people and we have many more who live in sub-standard housing. We have an appalling number of kids whose ability to take advantage of such educational opportunities that are available to them is compromised by a poor diet and the ill-effects of bad housing. 

Of course there's all the cheap 'stuff' that global capitalism has made available to us courtesy of hyper-exploited workers in other countries - baubles and beads to distract and divert.   The smug and the soulless point to this as evidence of how efficient, effective and economic global corporate capitalism is, or - when it suits and with typical disregard of the hypocrisy  -  as evidence of how feckless the poor are for spending their resources on 'luxuries'.

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