Poverty isn’t a gene. It’s a result.
And until this week, we didn’t have a real measure of what it looks like.
Just how deprived of dignity does a kid have to be before she or he is classed as living in poverty?
I mean, should we include the bilingual, brilliant kids I taught who showed their backbones through mildewed shirts, with nothing for lunch and certainly no breakfast, their refugee father stealing gas bottles from petrol stations to cook them rice once or twice a week? Yes? No? Not sure? The ones with sickening school sores that never got treated because all 12 occupants of the 3-bedroom house had school sores too and they’d all be reinfected anyway? Is it poverty surrounding the 5 year old who had so many head lice for so long he scratched his scalp to the skull, or something else? Is it real or fake poverty we can smell lingering among the 24 out of 28 kids who had to share their only pair of whole-soled shoes? The little ones who drank the dregs from beer cans before school because there wasn’t any food – were they savaged by poorness, or just born as tiny baby losers?
I could go on, and on. A quarter of our kids are now in poverty, a huge rise since the National Party took over (and it’s a much higher fraction than that in some areas of the country).
But they didn’t like the idea of measuring child poverty – they refused to because it was bothersome. Paula Bennett actually said out loud that it was too difficult because children moved in and out of poverty on a daily or weekly basis.
Too many kids are too poor too often for us to figure out just how poor they are.
What she means to say is this:
The National Party don’t have or want a strategy to deal with poverty.
Even the Herald on Sunday has expressed barely-concealed rage over the issue, running this scathing piece on our Minister for Social Development, her shoddy figures and poor analysis.
Paula Bennett is too terrified to admit the scale of the problem, and I don’t blame her. It is huge, it is horrifying, and when you truly understand what everyday poverty means for little kids, it breaks your head and it breaks your heart.
Luckily for this country, some people aren’t afraid. This brave and brilliant man, Dr Russell Wills, took it upon himself to secure funding for an independent investigation into child poverty (here is his report).
It is a tough report to read, and the predictable commentary from the public will be mainly outrage at the parents. Poor parenting – in both senses – has been shown to be a large contributing factor to child poverty, after all.
But it is never ever a child’s fault that they are covered in big scabby school sores, malnourished, or unable to shake sickness off because of the damp they live in. And I don’t actually give a damn what their parents did or didn’t do to get into poverty. The question really isn’t, Well, why did they have 8 children, those idiots? The question is: Why are those 8 children all in severe poverty when we have an allegedly first-world democratic government elected to look after us all?
Many responses towards calls to address poverty at the government level tend towards, What, so you want to reduce old people’s pensions and give my tax dollars money to poor kids instead?
It doesn’t have to be kids versus the elderly in a fist fight for our country’s funds – but let’s be honest: with this government it will be.
The responsibility-avoiding National Party, chronically blaming poverty on anything but policy, keeps rattling their teeth with the same lame reasons we always get from those who resent intrusion on their plans to prosper pecuniarily. They will continue to enact only the cost-neutral options among all the recommendations made by experts, instead of, oh, I don’t know, procuring funds by reversing excessive tax cuts for the biggest earners, or taxing the profits of mega-churches (who are supposed to give their billions to the poor anyway and clearly don’t, otherwise their communities wouldn’t be in such strife).
There’s a besides-which, too, and it goes like this: elderly personalities are fully formed, and much better off than our youth in general. A hungry, sick, poor, cold kid grows into an angry, resentful young adult, who is far more likely to prey on us all.
We don’t need an increase in the social ills that result from being permanently poor.
And when you know there is a huge, in-yer-face causal link, you wonder what is prompting this government to both sit on its hands and twiddle its thumbs so very hard.
Now that somebody has done the difficult research for them, surely we can eagerly await the announcement of what specific, evidence-based actions this minority government will take to address poverty, now they can measure it effectively.
They must at least try to address the human rights of the 25% of our kids living below the bread line, surely.
After all, a government exists essentially to help groups of hominid mammals live civilly alongside one another with their basic needs met.
A democratic, first-world government helps those at the bottom of the social ladder as well as those at the top.
And a decent government at least tries.
If they won’t even do that, then they quite simply have no business being in government.