From Problems To Problemettes – How Neoliberalism Is Redefining Poverty


Wealth and Poverty:

THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT would like our children to have “a better start”. Which is nice. What’s more, the Nats are putting our money where their focus groups say their mouths should be. How do we know? Because, two days ago (1/5/13) Steven Joyce, the Minister of Science and Innovation, identified “A Better Start: improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life” as one of the ten selected “National Science Challenges” slated for additional Government funding. Over the next four years an extra $73.5 million will be disbursed by Mr Joyce’s jolly boffins. Exactly how much of this largesse will end up giving kids “a better start” the Minister did not disclose.

Given the involvement of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Government’s “Science Advisor” in identifying and prioritising these research “challenges”, the scientific studies eventually approved are much more likely to involve a search for the genetic “predictors” of children’s ill-health and dysfunctional (as opposed to ‘successful’) lives, than they are to focus on the bleeding, bloody obvious reason for a less-than-optimal childhood: poverty.

If the solution to childhood ill-health and failure can be shown to lie in controlling the diet of pregnant women, or DNA-testing their offspring for a genetic propensity to become big fat drains on the public purse, then conservative politicians can be absolved of all responsibility for addressing the social conditions which contribute so decisively to physical and psychological morbidity in children.

The quest for some kind of eugenic “fix” to the problems of capitalism is as venerable as it is disreputable. Aldus Huxley’s novel Brave New World, written 82 years ago, in 1931, brilliantly satirizes the sort of techno-authoritarian, socio-biological, re-formulation of the human condition that Professor Gluckman’s enthusiasm for gene-based solutions unfortunately calls to mind.

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While we’re waiting for the scientific breakthroughs, however, the problem of what to do with all those pesky, unhealthy and dysfunctional children remains.

One approach, currently favoured by the busy little ideological beavers who inhabit right-wing think tanks, involves simply redefining the big problems of poverty into smaller, more manageable, problemettes – readily resolvable by market forces.

One of these busy beavers is Kristian Niemietz “Poverty Research Fellow” at the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs. His big gripe with most of the current research into poverty in advanced capitalist societies is that, fundamentally, it’s not about poverty at all. At least, not in the sense of absolute, life-threatening destitution: the sort of poverty encountered in Somalia or the slums of Mumbai. No, what nearly all Western sociologists study is relative poverty.

“Much of academic poverty research is therefore quite predictable” writes, Niemietz. “A typical poverty research paper starts by constructing a model which expresses the poverty rate as a function of a number of economic and social policy variables. After a lot of formula-shuffling, the paper then ‘finds’: More government spending, less poverty; less government spending, more poverty.”

The solution, Niemietz offers is as old as cowsfoot jelly and food stamps: make available to the poor only what wealthy people consider to be the bare necessities of life.

According to the ingenious Mr Niemietz: “We should approach poverty measurement from an altogether different angle. Surveys in the UK show that people may wildly disagree on what constitutes poverty when asked in abstract terms, but when asked more specifically which goods constitute ‘necessities’ in our day and age, there is a surprisingly robust consensus. So why not build a poverty indicator around that consensus? One could assemble a consumption basket containing all the goods and services that the majority consider necessities, gather the market prices of these items, add them up, and use the total cost of the basket as a poverty line.”

No, this is not an argument for subsidising these “necessities” – one does not get a job at the Institute for Economic Affairs by advocating subsidies! Somehow (Niemietz has no time for bothersome details) the all-powerful, all-knowing “Market” can be relied upon to work things out to the satisfaction of all concerned.

This solution would, its author reassures us: “. not just provide a more realistic account of how much poverty there is in developed countries. It would also encourage more sensible policy responses. The policy focus would be less on income redistribution, and more on creating the conditions for competitive product markets. A market structure which makes the basics of life (generously defined) easily affordable, right across the income distribution, can be seen as a safety net of sorts. And it is a safety net which does not trap people in dependency and inactivity.”

Until we break them down and examine their true meaning, such stock neoliberal arguments present a dangerous plausibility. They deceive us by conflating poverty with the experiences of starvation and exposure. Their purpose is to mask the lived reality of poverty and divert us from its true meaning.

To be poor is not to be cold or hungry or homeless – even wealthy people, from time to time, experience such conditions. Poverty is the leaden understanding in the gut of every person who is cold and hungry and homeless that they are powerless to alter their situation. In other words, poverty is always and everywhere a manifestation of unequal social and economic relationships. It is about who gets to decide how resources are distributed. In the classic contention of Vladimir Lenin, all human relations may be reduced to the formulation: Who? Whom?

All poverty is relative poverty.

If ships ceased to call at New Zealand ports, and all our power stations fell into disrepair. If a terrible combination of drought, flood and pestilence meant that there was only just enough food to feed the population. Would the possession of a trust account containing ten million dollars, no longer accessible, still entitle its owner to describe him or herself as a wealthy person?

Obviously not.

But if, driven by an equality of deprivation and suffering, the New Zealand population decided to work together to ensure that every individual was provided with food and shelter and could count on the care and companionship that human-beings, as social animals, are genetically programmed to provide; would these reborn New Zealanders count themselves rich or poor?

And, if you had to send your children away, without money or possessions, and your choice of destination was between the New Zealand I’ve described above, and the capitalist New Zealand of today, where would you send them?

In which New Zealand would they be most likely to live a “healthy” and “successful” life? In which New Zealand do you think they would get the “better start”?


  1. Disasters provide fascist with the opportunity to implement Disaster Capitalism.

    If there are not enough disasters, capitalism will create the required number.

    Rotting teeth, obesity, diabetes, road accidents, asthma (from breathing contaminate air, heart disease, cancers ………….

    • Want a good example, just have a close look at how property owners in Christchurch are being treated by this government. No better exemplifies disaster capitalism in this county than how commercial property owners and bare land owners are being fleeced by the government and it’s crooks using a natural disaster as a convenient excuse to undermine their property right and wealth. Try as a good example. Being a earthquake risk country, all property owners in NZ should be concerned.

      • As land cannot be removed from the commons then there shouldn’t be any land owners.

  2. Unequal or exploitative? Perhaps you shouldn’t be so quick with Lennin. Lest he succumbs to the very vulgarisation he so despised.

  3. This world is turning into all my favourite dystopia nightmares.

    “We” the environment is scary.

    “Brave New World” Eugenicist gone made.

    And “1984” – when will people get that Orwell wrote it to describe were liberalism was heading? His great anti-soviet anti communist piece was “Animal Farm”.

    Communism and Liberalism share the same intellectual tradition. That in itself should scare most right wingers to death. However, “1984” has become a joke to the left, “is not a bloody manual” quote sickens me. What we really need to ask ourselves is – if this intellectual tradition is destine to produce these outcomes – why are we supporting it in any guise?

  4. The neoliberals are a very powerful group, the sooner we can be rid of them, the better. When they saw their utopian deregulated free market world utterly collapse on its own excesses in 2007/2008, instead of starting over they decided to simply plug the gaps with bailouts, money printing and austerity (not for them, but for us). None of it is working, and the economies of the West continue to slide further and further, despite new all time highs on many stock markets.

  5. Who are you? And what have you done with the real Chris Trotter? This reductionist conflation of New Zealand research with eugenics and Kristian Niemietz reads as, well, a bit lazy really. Do a bit of research and you might want to remove the “ “ from Science Advisor (personally I think this appointment was the single inspired action this govt has taken). Do your research and you see that, well, Sir Peter has the mana to speak to Healthy Start research. A wee bit more delving might lead you to see that this research likely includes epigenetic studies of how environmental factors (eg stress and alcohol) affect the lifetime health of developing children. I kinda get the impression that the scientists doing this research might be smart enough to see the link here between poverty and negative developmental outcomes, especially given that this link is not questioned or controversial in developmental science.

    It’s not enough to spend money on the research but to spin it as a “quest for some kind of eugenic “fix” to the problems of capitalism“ misrepresents the science and potential benefits from this kind of research. This government is in denial over poverty, child poverty and our world leading disparity stats – that’s the battle ground. Taking pot shots at what might become the science that has the potential to inform a moral rethink doesn’t progress the debate. Nothing absolves politicians, conservative or otherwise, of “responsibility for addressing the social conditions which contribute to physical and psychological morbidity in children”. That’s part of their job description. And that is not what understanding the science is aiming to do.

    PS. Go the “Feed the Children” bill. And can we have Chris T back now please?

        • maternal diet arising from socio-political structure; carry on holding back the obesogenic tide with reams of research papers. Dip them in even.
          (very familiar with the challenges facing Primary Health professionals working in the areas of low socio-economic, maori and Pasifika; it will be poulations of asian descent next. but, carry on.

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