Monday, June 24, 2013
Poverty, Blaming Easier Than Fixing
I do think it is important to debate major issues confronting our country through public forums and involve influential and knowledgeable people. I remember in the 70s Brian Edwards used to front such programmes where an expert panel would debate an issue and a representative audience could also have opportunities to speak. These programmes were a great sharing of ideas and very informative. TV3's "The Vote" obviously was set up with a similar intention but I have been disturbed by how the format has actually limited robust discussion and ridiculously simplified the issues.
Last week the moot was, "Our kids: the problem's not poverty it's parenting". It was painful to watch some highly respected and knowledgeable individuals having to argue a simplistic view rather than deal with the complex and varied reasons why many children are suffering in substandard environments.
Dr Russell Wills, our current Commissioner for Children, has been involved in leading a an expert advisory group in finding solutions to child poverty and was allowed only a few minutes to channel some of those findings and recommendations during the debate. He was obviously frustrated by the lack of opportunity to share the solutions that would probably make a difference.
Celia Lashlie has won recognition for using her experience as a prison officer to inform her writing and her last book "The Power of Mothers" is a must read for those who want to understand the reality for many struggling mothers. Celia quickly realised that the format would be counter productive to ensuring useful support for the mothers she is passionate about helping. She was concerned that if the vote favoured blaming parents it would become an excuse for the influential "middle class" and our decision makers to withdraw support from areas that would make a real difference.
Hone Harawira was passionate but unable to argue a narrow view, however he clearly described the levels of poverty and lack of well paid work for the people he represented. Northland has the lowest median income in the country and the highest levels of youth unemployment. 25% of 20-24 year olds are in the NEET category (not in education, employment or training) and a high proportion of people live on incomes less than $15,000 per annum.
The conservative panel of Christine Rankin, Bob McCroskrie and Hannah Tamaki argued that poor budgeting and not prioritising children was the heart of the problem. Hannah Tamaki even attempted to explain that if homes are cold and lacking in amenities then a warm blanket and love was sufficient to get by. Sadly this simplistic view won the debate with 63% of viewers.
The lack of well paid work, the rising costs of rent and power and the shocking levels of unhealthy, substandard and overcrowded homes that many families are forced to live can now be ignored. The median weekly income for Maori families is around $459 and for Pasifika, $390, considering that many are living on incomes less than this is should be a major concern.
Less affluent communities are also plagued by loan sharks and have far more liquor retailers, pokie machines and fast food outlets than more affluent communities. It is difficult enough to be poor but this government generally protects industries that take unfair advantage of poor families' vulnerability and does little to address the problems they cause.
John Key described poverty in a 2011 election debate as being "scared to open the bills" and this definition would probably include half of all families. I wonder how Christine Rankin would manage a common scenario for many when, after the rent and power bills have been paid, there is only $20 left to buy food for the week and one of the children needs a new pair of shoes? A blanket, love, good budgeting and a bowl of cereal just won't cover the deficits many families face.