Neoliberalism, Not Drug Addiction Is The Social Ill Causing Child Poverty


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There’s two heavily contrasting ways people in the political sphere try and attempt to explain poverty.

Either it’s the result of poor choices and personal deficiencies on the part of the individual (the right-wing view – and I note that “the individual” in question is rarely if ever thought to be the Minister of Social Development) … or it’s the result of huge and impersonal systemic failures which leave the fate of those individuals precariously unaffected by any decisions nor virtues of their own.

The real answer’s probably somewhere in the middle. Yes – hard work, energy and effort can help to lift a citizen or their family out of poverty. But it’s incredibly, insanely hard to do when the cards are so heavily stacked against upward mobility. We are, after all, living with a system which gives us average house-rents of over five hundred dollars a week, yet which has also caused real wages to decline by around twenty five percent since the onset of neoliberalism.

Regrettably, there are few signs that this sorry state of affairs might change at any point in the not-too-distant future. Our political system has, for three Elections running now, continued to give us National, National and more National – a party which possesses no great nor abiding interest in making fundamental alterations to our economic fate.

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Instead of winning us over with serious and enduring policy solutions, then – and, y’know, actually *leading* – the National party has become amazingly adroit at coming up with cockamamie buck-passing excuses for the failures and short-comings of their governance.

When pressed about their dismal economic performance for their first two terms in office, for instance, they’d respond that our economic circumstances simply weren’t their fault. National had inherited a perilous economic situation from Labour, or so the story went, and that was held up as the sort of self-evident political truth which explained everything. (Funnily enough, it’s even sort-of true … except the woeful economic orientations National inherited from Labour come down to us from the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 rather than the Fifth Labour Government in power from 1999-2008)

Equally, when Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley was asked to explain the dismal phenomenon of substantial and long-term endemic unemployment within her own electorate, she didn’t give a serious response.

Instead, she ascribed the situation to the downright curious idea that “it can be a pretty good lifestyle [on the dole]”, thus rendering it a “pretty tall ask sometimes to convince people” to go into paid employment instead.

That’s an excuse, not an answer – and one which is custom-crafted in order to resonate with National’s core support base … people who don’t particularly care to look beyond the easy explanations and subtle rhetorical rightness-feeling afforded by beneficiary-bashing in order to see how “broken” the system actually is for themselves.

Yet it was another part of Tolley’s statement which popped instantly to mind when news of John Key’s clanger that poverty – and especially child poverty – in this country could be largely explained by drug addiction. She’d effectively claimed that what made a benefit livable for some of her constituents was “a cash crop and good kaimoana”. Or, in other words, whatever foraging they were able to pull off, and some drug-dealing to make ends meet.

I must say, it’s rather extraordinary for the welfare minister of what’s very theoretically a modern, first-world country and enlightened social democracy to outright state that families on the benefit apparently need to engage in illegal conduct in order to survive with a viable standard of living … but that’s our government for you.

In any case, Tolley’s remarks inadvertently help to shine a light on one of the most important contributing factors to poverty in New Zealand: whether working poor or people on a benefit, we simply aren’t paying enough to actually allow many of our citizens to enjoy a decent standard of living.

Experts agree, and when National announced its “hardship reduction package” as part of the 2015 Budgetacademics from Victoria and Otago Universities were quick to note that families on a benefit would require between $100 and $200 a week extra in order to be above the poverty line – not the $25 a week National had promised some families.

As NZ First Social Development spokesperson Darroch Ball pointed out at the time … the Government would have to be delusional to believe that a mere two dollars a day would have a serious tangible impact when it comes to tackling – much less ending – child poverty here in New Zealand.

The same problem applies for those actually in paid employment in the first place. The minimum wage in this country is $14.75 an hour. The living wage is estimated to be $19.25. There are more than a hundred thousand workers in New Zealand still stuck on the minimum wage, and tens of thousands more earning various figures above the minimum wage yet well below a viable income. The minimum wage also represents an ever-diminishing slice of the economic pie – in 1946, for instance, the minimum wage was 80% of the median wage … yet has regressed to just over half the median wage in the years since.

All of this together means that even if there were any truth to Key’s assertion that drugs represent a barrier to people getting off a benefit and into (presumably entry-level) paid employment … they’d hardly be likely to find themselves escaping poverty in so doing.

Our labour market just simply doesn’t work like that any more.

More to the point, on the face of all available evidence it would appear the Prime Minister is simply making up misinformation in order to ‘justify’ his Government’s woeful lack of action on this pressing social issue.

Let’s consider the facts:

At the start of last year, then-Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett trumpeted figures showing only twenty two beneficiaries had either failed drug tests or refused to take them upon being referred to jobs.

Not twenty two thousand or twenty two hundred … twenty two individuals.

By the end of the year, this had risen to a grand total of 134. To put that figure in context, that’s a hundred and thirty four failures out of a pool of nearly three hundred thousand beneficiaries nationwide.

So for these 134 people, yes I suppose it’s fair to say that their drug use may have presented a bit of a barrier between them and their more full participation in the workforce. This is true, but there are literal orders of magnitude worth of difference between that number and the more than three hundred thousand Kiwi kids who are presently living in poverty. (Oh, and while we’re on the subject, the New Zealand Drug Foundation have also argued that National’s more punitive approach towards drug-using beneficiaries may actually *worsen* rather than ameliorate poverty while not actually meaningfully reducing beneficiaries’ barriers to work)

So what’s happened here?

Well, like I said. The Key-led National government doesn’t have any serious solutions for poverty or income inequality in New Zealand. They’re not really that interested in that sort of thing.

Instead, when questions like this come up … they present us with excuses for why things haven’t improved, rather than ways we can work together to improve them.

National also possesses a highly regrettable penchant for scapegoating, wedge-politics, and trying to blame the economic victims of neoliberalism for their own misfortune.

It all makes for good politics. Their base doesn’t care if the Government lies where convenient – particularly where the deliberate falsehoods “sound right”.

And it doesn’t matter if there’s a wealth of evidence including the Public Health Agency coming out to openly contradict the Prime Minister’s breathless claims. Beneficiaries on drugs sounds like something that happens. People who don’t want to confront the reality that the government they voted for lacks ideas and is instead inarguably making the situation worse … are quite happy to believe in stereotypes instead.

But as the lies get ever more desperate, and the gulf between rhetoric and reality becomes steadily more insurmountable by the year … I have every hope that more and more people will start waking up to the fact that whenever the Prime Minister comes up with an outrageous falsehood like this, it’s actually because he’s desperately trying to cover for the failings of his own social and economic system.

Because let’s be clear about this: the only time poor choices by ordinary New Zealanders creates systemic poverty … is when a large proportion of us vote for National.


  1. Back in the days when I was deepsea fishing we had a saying – “If you’re making excuses you’re making mistakes.” The righties are all about taking responsibility – as an attack meme.

    • Wrong on both assumptions…you will recall Peters left/or was sacked by the National party to later go on to form NZF in 1993 precisely because of neo liberalism – precisely – because Bolger sacked him on account of those fundamental differences.

      You will also recall that Labour was the instigator of neo liberalism in this country – and still has some of those original instigators and backers in its caucus to this day.

      It was a Hobsons choice.

      Peters appeared to realize this and in the 1996 elections rather than creating a hung parliament situation – in which case he would have received the blame – he chose National. And not so much to rid us of the by – now entrenched neo liberalism but to try and soften some of its effects – particularly for his constituents.

      However the National party was never going to be in any semblance like the National party of old… it was forever tainted by neo liberal ideology. And , when Jenny Shipley – ( who was far more aggressively neo liberal in outlook than Bolger ) rolled Bolger in a bloodless coup taking the position of PM whilst Bolger was out of the country – the National/NZF coalition broke up.

      And as neo liberalism and Social Democracy are diametrically opposed philosophically and economically , the two could not exist side by side.
      This is why Peters left /was forced out of the National party /NZF coalition in this case as well.

      Because the policy’s and ideologies of neo liberalism and those of Social Democracy are inherently opposed to each other and never the twain shall they meet.

      Incidentally…it was the ‘Mother of all Budgets’ cynically put together by another rabid neo liberal , Ruth Richardson , minister of finance ( who, incidentally as well , Peters opposed when in coalition with National ) – that really created the poverty class we now see. Ruth Richardson is a board member like Roger Douglas of the Mont Pelerin Society.

      Ruth Richardson was one of the most disliked politicians in this nations history.

      So we see a picture emerging of the destructive nature of these neo liberals and their Mont Pelerin Society think tanks and the extremes to which they would, – if they could – take to totally disembowel any last vestiges of nationhood and a concept of community and replace it with a global alliance of nations drawn together by trade agreements presided over by an industrial court which would have the power by force of sanctions to overrule a sovereign nations own laws.

      And this is precisely what the TTPA is all about.

      So , in summary … to write off leaders such as Peters and ignore the historical context of the assertions you made without providing evidence is really not giving a fair perspective on what happened , why it did or the motives of the people involved at the time.

      • I remember being seriously p…d off when Labour sold the phone system & various other assets but Muldoon left such a mess that it was an easy environment to fool quite a few people (some remain deceived today) & removing SMP’s was a good move however farmers have managed to get government support again in various ways. Peters has managed some good things but my impression is that his own interests are what drive him & I would not want to be relying on him. To be fair I could probably say the same about all politicians today.

        • The pig farmer told us that we were virtually bankrupt and there was no option but to sell State Assets, the country I am sure is in a worse financial position now than in the 1980’s however I have not analysed the figures.

      • Another excellent post WK.

        I thoroughly enjoy your postings, as do many TDB supporters no doubt.

        Your posts are always intelligent, sharp and up with the play, with some great research on your part to support what you say. Have you considered writing a blog at all for TDB? I’m sure it would be very well received 🙂

  2. A few years ago I worked for an organisation that supported beneficiaries back into work. The people referred to my programme were the ones who had been assessed as having fewer barriers to work, so got less training/employment support than people on other programmes. They got 13 weeks with me. I had been a teenage mum 20+ years ago, and could empathise with many of their struggles.

    The barriers to employment I encountered among them were things like no full license, no car, access to childcare, little or no recent work experience, references, unqualified, lacking confidence, no c.v., no email address, no experience with online job searching.

    The 13 week programme aimed to address the range of needs in a supportive environment. I was achieving higher than 80% success rate when I left the job for one with higher pay because as rewarding as it was, I wasn’t going to get ahead on my gross salary of 41k. Poverty is a complex issue and it’s very unfair of MPs to make such flippant, ignorant, disconnected comments.

  3. Excellent piece, Curwen. We can only dispel the myths surrounding beneficiaries by constantly addressing the parroted propaganda from the Right. This government HAS to demonise beneficiaries otherwise responsibility will fall back on Key, Bennett, Joyce, Brownlee, Smith, Bridges, Tolley and all the other drones in the National Party.

  4. Oh yes…. the ‘bicycle path’….

    Remember that ?… the ‘Social Democratic ‘ arm of the state intervening to create more jobs breathlessly proclaimed by Key shortly before and just after he gained power?…

    The ‘BIG’ news that would employ 200 people?

    It still isn’t finished.

    7 or 8 years afterwards.

    Remember the wide eyed politically young John Key promising just before and just after his election the creation of 300,000 new jobs under his administration?

    It still hasn’t reached that number.

    WINZ doesn’t need that many case managers , anyway.


    It matters not what a political party calls itself but it DOES MATTER if they are a neo liberal one or a Social Democratic one.

    It matters not if a party calls itself ‘Social Democratic ‘ but it DOES MATTER if they practice a form of Keynesian economics or not.

    Therefore …to describe the political party’s in power in NZ since 1984 as ‘Social Democratic’ is a complete nonsense. They are not.

    They are neo liberal ideologues.

    It does not matter if they are Labour or National or Act or whoever else… if their primary ideology is neo liberal…

    Then they ARE NOT Social Democrats.

    And their economic, social , trade, policy’s will reflect that and that only.

    You cannot call a dead dog anything else but what it is – a dead dog. And the same is for the neo liberal no matter what stripe or deceit they may like to use to cover up their ideology.

    And because of that , you cannot expect a silk purse from a sows ear. Its just not going to happen. You cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and over again and expect a different result.

    To do would be to admit either a learning deficiency or insanity.

    And the only true and lasting and permanent solution is to utterly destroy neo liberalism and then to prevent it ever returning would be to pass legislation based on an in-depth definition of that ideology produced by economists and political scientists.

    Much like they did to the Nazi party and then outlawed it in many country’s.

    But therein lies the inherent weakness and fragility of any democracy… because of its nature of actually BEING a democracy…that of the popular vote… rogue socially and fiscally destructive elements can gain a foothold into that democracy through the vehicles of deceit and guile and misrepresentation.

    Which is EXACTLY what happened under the fourth Labour govt in 1984.

    Under Lange and his Finance Minister Roger Douglas.

    Mont Pelerin Society sitting board members Roger Douglas and his counterpart in National Ruth Richardson.

    And how did this extreme far right think tank ( Mont Pelerin Society ) gain a foothold through deceit, guile and misrepresentation in this country ?

    By simply hijacking the largest centre left Social Democratic party this country had and embedding agents of theirs in key positions. It was a fact that Douglas had for some time wanted to introduce these ‘measures’ into the NZ economy….as far back as the tenure of Norman Kirk.

    We are talking early – mid 1970’s here…a substantial time ago…

    And Kirk’s response?

    ” If you ever mention those things again I will have you expelled from the Labour party ”….

    And so Douglas bided his time using deceit, guile and misrepresentation , catchcrys and slogans, disinformation and false information telling only a certain part of a story that benefited his objectives… the rest is history and can be found on The Standard …documentary’s hosted by Ian Fraser.

    So now we have the latest neo liberal PM who uses the ludicrous claims that ” their all out there sniffing glue and getting high and that’s why they are all poor ”….or words to that effect.

    Such is the rude crassness of the neo liberal in inventing these fallacious and puerile claims to justify the deceit , guile and misrepresentation of their predictably failed and flawed economic foundation …to which they deliberately created to service their own self interests knowing full the consequences on society.

    They are no better than the out – of – control and anti democratic aristocrats and nobles of Europe were 200 years ago.

    The only difference now being that they are forced to work within the ‘parliamentary ‘ mechanism in modern times due to the destruction of the monarchical orders of Europe which was brought on by their own avarice , greed and arrogance.

    And this is why… the neo liberal ideology should be deemed an illegal one in any aspiring Social Democratic society. As a protection against a pernicious , invasive and malignant ideology based upon lies and perverted half truths – that subvert’s not only the wealth of the commons – but also the very fabric of common decency that binds a community and thus a nation together.

    • A great post – this is what the kiwis who don’t understand neoliberalism need to read. They are only disconcerted and confused – if they saw the whole picture they’d be absolutely furious.

  5. Yeah Nah Curwen!

    The poverty cycle is caused is stupid people having children.

    Even worse in NZ, taxpayers are forced to finance stupid people producing children.


    Can you give me some references for where this social democratic utopia of yours is actually working?

    Venezuela maybe?

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