Child Poverty and Wealth Inequality in NZ - Our Collective Failure

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In the current climate of child poverty and wealth inequality, one could argue that the time for pleasantries, rhetoric or bureaucratic excuses has long passed.

It has now been four years since Brian Bruce’s ‘Inside Child Poverty’ documentary aired, creating a stir among the mainstream and furthering a conversation started years earlier but strangely lacking in popular momentum. Now in mid-2015, and armed with the benefit of hindsight, how have we faired at confronting and resolving this crisis? The short and unfortunate answer is that we haven’t; with very little exception, none of the issues addressed have been sufficiently confronted or amplified. We have resolutely failed in our responsibility.

In the current climate of child poverty and wealth inequality, one could argue that the time for pleasantries, rhetoric or bureaucratic excuses has long passed. Our continuing inability to respond to these crises has seen us move beyond the reach of status-quo political responses, economic readjustments and democratic policy reform. We are now too heavily entrenched, stranded amidst a destructive and stratifying epidemic that has the capacity to not only undermine the remaining foundations of our democracy, but to push us further into a spiralling and destabilising social cataclysm.

When confronted with such heavy and emotionally charged issues, It can be tempting to lean upon old and well-worn excuses, to paint ourselves as either witness or victim; sometimes an unspeaking observer but never willingly complicit. Though if we are honest with ourselves, as our standing as adult citizens dictates, we come to realise how disingenuous and distracting this delusion is. Vastly more than just the unfortunate and unplanned side-effects of a fluctuating or stagnant economy, the problems now confronting us are the direct and foreseeable result of our political, economic and social-policy negligence.

It can also be tempting to point to global trends in an effort to justify our failures; but with one in four children now living in poverty and a wealth gap which sees the top 10% richer than the bottom 90% combined, the usual bureaucratic excuses and ultra ‘reasonable’ suggestions for minor policy reforms and political realignment prove to be woefully insufficient. In fact, if we are to effectively deal with these crises, such attempts to minimise the scope of the problem must be aggressively cast aside and publically denounced. Any half-measures, fob-offs or upper-middle class pandering from our government or officials should be viewed as a cruelly insufficient and heartless response to a problem which is causing us to haemorrhage through our untreated and festering social wounds.

Let us make no mistake about causes – the deliberate destabilisation of labour markets and the bloating salaries of CEO’s and technologically skilled workers have both attributed to a steady devaluing of unskilled labour, further deepening the doom of those at the bottom. These are not accidental or unforeseeable consequences, they are the conscious and deliberate acts of neoliberal deregulation, market competitiveness and corporatocratic policy. And while it may come as a shock to many, none of this was incalculable; the accumulating data has been revealing this bleak picture for some time, we have just failed to heed such warnings and failed to take sufficient action.

So while it may have been previously possible to do so (dubiously), we can no longer blame ignorance or a lack of data for our failures. Thanks in part to many pioneering and paradigm-shattering studies into the causes and symptoms of child poverty and wealth inequality, we are now well armed with the necessary ammunition to obliterate any attempts by professionals, politicians or the general public to reduce such concerns down to their most banal and innocuous forms; we can now say outright, and without restraint, that any proposed policy or reform that fails to address the situation wholly should not only be deemed unacceptable but seen as an act of intentional negligence.

There have been three stand-out and definitive books in the last few years that effectively deal with the wider implications of inequality and child poverty both in New Zealand and abroad (there are of course many more than these that deserve a mention). Thomas Pikketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, backed by a decade of research, both highlighted the systemic inequality inherent in neoliberal capitalism and provided convincing arguments in favour of a global ‘rich tax’ to aggressively redistribute wealth. Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson’s ‘The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger’ proved undeniably that inequality is disastrous for all members of a society – including the wealthy – and demonstrated the toxic and debilitating effects of rampant inequality on the health and well-being of the poor and working poor. Closer to home, ‘Child Poverty in New Zealand’ by Jonathan Boston and Simon Chapple confronted the many pervasive myths behind the crisis, debunking the most prevalent and destructive, and refocusing our attention back to the real issues involved.

As highlighted by Boston and Chapple, it is easy to feel as though the primary – and by some views, only - cause of poverty is the poor themselves, that they must be lazy, irresponsible or unwilling to work. To a very large degree, this can be dismissed as both factually inaccurate and, when used as an intentional attack, an attempt to reduce the debate to the blinding polemics of emotional bombast. Again, the data and wide-ranging research easily refutes such facile claims. Anecdotally, most of us could think of countless situations where this type of attitude is regurgitated thoughtlessly by members of the citizenry; these damaging myths of groundless blame are deeply entrenched in our collective psyche - to the point that we are often unaware of where we first got such information.

The shallowness of this type of mind-set can be further highlighted by acknowledging the startling facts; when two out of every five children living in poverty have a parent in full-time work, the usual political and populist appeals to a lack of productivity or motivation to work become ridiculous. Despite what some may say, we don’t really have a parenting issue – we have a system issue.

To further highlight how compromised and prejudiced our perspectives have become, one may compare the figures of reported corporate tax evasion in New Zealand with reported benefit fraud - $7.4 billion to $22 million respectively. Dr Lisa Marriott has suggested a significant ideological difference between the two which influences the thinking of the public and how the offenders are pursued. If benefit fraud effectively costs each New Zealander $5 whereas tax evasion costs them $1500, why do we more rigorously prosecute benefit fraudsters? (60% compared to 20%)

The answer to this can be partly attributed to ideology; under the corrupting tutelage of neoliberalism - to the detriment of social consciousness - we have been sold the impossible idea of super-productivity, rugged individualism and free-market competition. To now acknowledge how counter-intuitive and contrary to the evidence these pursuits actually are would be to acknowledge the underlying deceit of the overall construct. That we fail to see the connection between neoliberalism and the structural violence now visible in our society says more of our short-sighted provincial nature – and our government’s manipulation of this - than of any serous lack of compassion or socialistic responsibility.

Surprisingly, in a conversation that is starting to reach even the most impenetrable parts of moderate and conservative New Zealand, the previously sacrosanct topic of capitalism – and its subsequent negative fruits – is gaining ground. Thomas Pikketty’s book, among many others, has helped to open the door on some new and startling perspectives. What was inconceivable a few years ago is now becoming more widely accepted; increasing numbers of the construct-dwelling median-strip are beginning to see and understand how neoliberalism – that corrupting and self-feeding leviathan of selfish interest – has not only failed to deliver on its bright promise of perpetually increasing productivity and growth for all, but can even be viewed as one of the main causes of our current predicament.

Government apologists and groupies will perhaps point to various reforms and superficial political manoeuvrings in recent years as proof of some official commitment to genuine change, and while this can be acknowledged and duly noted – yes even in regards our free-market and privatisation worshipping National government - it certainly can’t be claimed that anything serious has been proposed or honestly attempted. Paltry efforts like the raising of benefits by $25 per week for families with children are not just grossly insufficient in the face of the problem, but bordering on farcical when the overall data is fully taken into account.

One of the key problems when we talk about inequality or child poverty – or any other issue relating to social class and the effects of corrupt political structures – is the dispassionate and perfunctory way in which politicians, economists and policy advisors view and respond to these issues. And I only refrain, at this point, from suggesting their wholesale detachment from ground-level reality as that would assign them a level of ignorance wholly undeserved. Let me speak plainly – their weak and ineffective policies in regards such urgent crises are not signs of ineptitude or thoughtlessness but the deliberate and craven avoidance-acts of plutocratic statesmen who view such concerns as low-priority compared to trade-deals and corporate pandering.

There is no justification or reason – whether reasonable or not – that is even remotely sufficient to excuse their callous indifference to the human suffering of our fellow citizens. These deliberate acts of avoidance and disregard should be viewed as criminal negligence; the complete failure of our leaders in their roles as representatives of the people.

Ahead of us, so starkly looming in our near future, is the real and approaching reality of revolt and revolution. Our social and political soil made fertile with years of unsatisfied promises and the petty politicking of our weak and schizophrenically opposing governments, direct action and violence will be the only possible response to class-warfare that the poor and disenfranchised have left to use. Once the system has failed them – which it already has - these desperate tools will become the only viable mechanisms to express their rage and sense of injustice and betrayal.

With such a fundamental schism between rich and poor, and the subsequent social, ideological and political devolving that follows, we will be increasingly forced into a hard-line stance; history warns us what happens when the poor opposes social terrorism by the state. While it may sound extreme or exaggerated to the average New Zealand moderate, what we are now seeing is not a natural phenomenon of modernity but the surface symptoms of system-induced structural violence - the familiar and ominous beginnings of a class-war.

So we find ourselves in an unfortunate and difficult situation; if we continue to fail in our collective responsibility to care for the most vulnerable of our society, we must also accept that the lives and opportunities of those at the bottom will increasingly be devalued, disenfranchised and destroyed. Under these conditions, to do nothing equates to the same as doing wrong; due to the extremity of the problem, it is truly a case of ‘nobody wins unless everybody wins’.

If the experts are right – and we should conclude that they are – drastic and sweeping changes are required; the minimum wage must be replaced with a universal living wage, benefits must be raised and pegged to current wages, wealth must be aggressively redistributed via a ‘rich tax’ a la Pikketty and corporate tax must be heavily regulated and enforced. And if our current brand of democracy is unable to provide these for everyone, then we need a new democracy – and we need it fast.

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