Saturday, December 19, 2015

Martin van Beynen nails it with a MUST-READ

Some years ago Martin van Beynen took off on a tour of New Zealand to find poverty. He didn't stand in a university lecture theatre or go to some church in a wealthy suburb to preach statistics.

What he did do was produce a series of articles and photographs from the most run-down and often dysfunctional environments. He talked to the people who live in them who it must be said were often rather cheerful and stoic. Or sometimes angry and disaffected. But he took us to the places we know exist yet will probably never see for ourselves.

Today he has delivered again with a brilliant expose of the meaninglessness of child poverty reports.
Absolute must-read. Reproduced in full here so I can be assured of access to it in the future:

OPINION:  If you lived next door to children living in severe poverty, you would probably do something to help out.
You might, for instance, slip the family a few hundred bucks around Christmas, have them over for dinner occasionally or pay the odd household bill for them.
But living cheek by jowl with the poor doesn't happen to middle NZ very much any more.
The gap has widened and the poor congregate in their enclaves and middle NZ goes some place else.
Street life doesn't bring the classes together.
But we hear about poverty quite a bit because, as an advanced society, we have measures and statistics to monitor how we are treating the most vulnerable.
We have reports like the Child Poverty Monitor which was released this week.
It said 305,000 dependent New Zealanders aged 0-17 were living in income poverty. Using another measure, it reported 220,500 of the same age group were living in "severe poverty".
It generated the usual response of Government bashing, capitalist blaming and gnashing of teeth. John Key scandalised Labour's children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern by linking poverty to drug use.
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government's refusal to end child poverty was putting children's lives at risk.
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And then, as is becoming usual, nothing.
Shouldn't we be shocked and appalled? Why aren't we doing something? What is wrong with us?
The answers are many and various. As a political or even social advocacy tool reports like the Child Poverty Monitor are pretty hopeless.
They cast the net too wide so truly serious poverty is trivialised. They suggest the answers all relate to handing out more money, that easy fix solutions exist. They tell us what we already know. Maori and Polynesian children are over-represented. Really?
They imply children are somehow divorced from their family or community environment.
In addition the numbers don't sound quite right.
Let's take a city in NZ which has a population of say 400,000. About 100,000 will be under 18. Of those, about 29,000, according to the report, are living in "income poverty" and about 21,000 will be in "severe poverty".
That's a lot of kindergartens, primary schools and high schools in a city like Christchurch or Wellington.
And what is income or severe poverty anyway?
Poverty is an emotive term, at least for my generation (I am a youthful 57).
It brings to mind an income on which it is impossible to afford the basic necessities of life. It conjures up images of ragged children, dust bowls, rundown houses, beaten down workers and bleak streets. But being poor is different from living in poverty.
In modern sociological terms poverty has become to mean the inability to participate fully in society or to reach one's full potential.
And don't forget we are not just talking about poverty. It is child poverty.
A child is a small innocent person in my book. When you include 16 and 17 year-olds, you bring young adults into the mix. They are still children, of course, but their childhoods have gone.
We all know why these reports use the word child. A child is blameless and  innocent. This gets around the problem of the undeserving poor. These  child poverty victims have, by a cruel quirk of fate, ended up being born in the wrong families.
Child poverty is more worthy of a sympathetic ear than old people poverty or single parent poverty. It is innocent poverty.
Then we have those fascinating definitions. Income poverty is defined as 60 per cent of the median income after housing costs are taken into account. Severe poverty is 50 per cent of the median income.
Median income is the point at which half the people receive more and half receive less than the stated amount.
The child monitor report does not say what the median NZ income is but a bit of detective work shows the median NZ income is $621 a week.
It's more complicated however. The median income from wages and salaries is $882 a week ($45,864 pa).
Then we have income from "Government transfers" which is income provided by the state for things like benefits, Working for Families, ACC payments and NZ Superannuation.
The median weekly transfer is $315 a week.
Another reason to be a little wary of the Child Monitor report is that it reports a big change in income poverty from 2013 ( 24 per cent of dependent 0-17 year olds) to 2014 (29 per cent).
What could have happened in just 12 months to plunge another 45,000 children and young adults into income poverty?
We need to be reminded about children living in true hardship. But not everything that reminds us is worthwhile.
Reports like the Child Poverty Monitor are not working.
Everyone knows a low income is only one of a host of factors which make people poor and increasing benefits or allowances will make little difference to the poverty which stems from human frailties, failures or vices.
We need robust measures to give us an accurate picture of who needs help but the figures are starting to seem meaningless.
We have come to doubt them. They don't seem to reflect reality. They lump the poor into one amorphous caste. They make no allowance for the black market economy or the ability to harvest free food.
A lot is already being done to help families in hardship and a lot more needs to be done but these reports don't help at all.


JC said...

"And then, as is becoming usual, nothing.
Shouldn't we be shocked and appalled? Why aren't we doing something? What is wrong with us?"

The writer does a good job of explaining this and I would add its very similar to the hoopla around climate change, ie, the activists have oversold the product with scare stories that don't match people's experience and knowledge.

Most people, I think, understand there's something fishy about using a percentage of median income which means even if the median increased ten fold there would still be the same percentage of "poor" people.. even though their income had gone up ten fold.

Even a much better methodology that measures actual essentials is fraught because of the interpretation on what is essential.. so having more than one person per room is poverty, not being able to afford a holiday in Australia is poverty and so on.

And even more infuriating if it wasn't so damn funny are the media poverty pictures of a family with sad faces with computers, TV, Sky and cell phones down to the 8 year olds.. all the indicators of what a generation ago would be signs of significant wealth.

In this black comedy of poverty there's no recognition of simple factors like age.. if you are under 30 then you may be relatively poor because you simply haven't had the time to accumulate wealth yet.. other things are more important.

About all a meaningful measure of poverty can do is cover a handful of basics such as food, water, shelter and transport availability. Most of the other things are really only social constructs. We should also recognise that many wealthy people would be considered "poor" by definition because they don't have TV, computer, cell phones, modern cars, kitchen gadgets etc that social justice warriors believe to be essential.


OlderChas said...

Well worth the read! I have personally waived "child poverty" because the numbers have become just stupid - and therefore meaningless.

Anonymous said...

The whole idea of measuring or even discussing "poverty" yields the argument to the communists.

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything

We need to top talking about 'poverty' - child or not - and stop thinking government or welfare can alleviate something that does not exist. There are individuals who make choices and there are incentives that affect those choices.

Poverty is created by welfare.