The “War on Poverty”: Who is winning (or losing)?


For decades the left wing of the New Zealand electorate has railed against poverty – and rightly so. A nation where everyone has the same opportunities to be all they can be, to live with dignity is after all the most noble and just state of being a country should aspire to achieve. But decades after the so called “War on Poverty” – a war to rid New Zealand of the socio-economic environment that fuels inequality, crime and bad things like drugs – are we as a country winning it, losing it or is it a stale mate with no clear outcome?

To be honest I am not sure I know the answer, or that anyone honesty knows the answer.

There is more recognition of the circumstances that cause it now than probably ever before. There is more resources and government money being thrown at it than probably before, but none of this is meaningful without tangible objectives, policies to give effect to those objectives or rules to enforce the policies. And social policy planners and analysts know this very well

I think we have reached a stalemate. We can thrown unknown billions more in taxpayer dollars at the beast, but it is fair to say I think that we have become stuck in the mud.

Wheels are a spinnin’ the mud is a flyin’ but nowhere is where we are a goin’.

Because maybe it is not the dollars and policy changes that happen after each election that matter. It is true that one does not have to look too far to find a person genuinely frustrated with one more of the Ministry of Social Development’s umbrella agencies – Work and Income New Zealand, Studylink, Child Youth and Families Service.

The break down in how we raise youth, was perhaps being none better illustrated than by the Police arresting three minors yesterday including a 14 year who had breached bail conditions. But it is much more than that – crime is usually the tragic end result of poverty – as it is hard for youth to learn if they come from family with a poor socio-economic background, that struggle to feed, clothe and send their children to school. In towns where major industries have closed and unemployment is high manufacturing cannabis or other narcotics might be the biggest employer in the township.

So, if they come from an honest working class family where both parents hold down jobs – we’ll say the Dad works at a freezing works and the mother is working at the local supermarket – that is two incomes. We will say $900 a week after tax. $300 is lost on rent. $200 goes on the food. They have one car that costs $100 to fill up plus registration and Warrant of Fitness. The kids are high school age and paying for uniform, plus stationery and extra curricular activities might cost another $2,500. Then there is any medical bills they might have. After all that, there might only be a dozen dollars left in the bank from each weeks.

But not everyone is that lucky. If you parents are providing all that then they are honestly making an honest go at supporting their children. But what about those who lose most of their money on rent, food and can barely get their children to school? What about those living with grand parents as some are because through whatever circumstances their parents passed away or are not able to care for them?

All this also potentially ignores those that grew in abusive families and are now having to confront the consequences of that abuse, the mental state it has left them in. It ignores those that might have only ever known the style of the Heke family from Once Were Warriors. Far too many New Zealanders have gone down this road. Far too many more are heading down this road and way, way too many more will be heading down the road of Jake, Beth, Nig, Grace and company if this is not acknowledged.

But in terms of policy, I see reviews. I see money being thrown at this and that, but I do not see a long term plan being fleshed out. I do not see any attempt at acknowledging the neoliberal elephant in the room. Unless and until this happens, I think the

Wheels of Aotearoa will keep on a spinnin’ the mud will keep on a flyin’ but nowhere is where we are a goin’.

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