The debate over various ‘food in school’ programmes is remarkably lively, especially now that the Government is seemingly covering its flank on the issue - and perhaps even attempting to outflank those on the left.
In fact, it’s now gone well beyond being ‘lively’. The furore over two cartoons by Al Nisbet (e.g., see here and here and here) has, yet again, seen New Zealand expose its ugly underbelly for all to see.
The cartoons are of course not at all instructive about the nature or causes of material poverty in New Zealand but they say a lot about the intellectual and moral poverty of many – perhaps most – New Zealanders.
First, a bit of background about the Government’s announcement.
The Government’s latest funding for ‘food in schools’ aims to increase the current two day per week Kickstart programme of breakfasts of Weetbix and milk in a selection of decile 1 to 4 schools that is supported by Sanitarium Food Company and Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest dairy cooperative and exporter. [In addition, Fonterra is running a 'Milk for Schools' programme.]
The government will provide $1.9m per year into the programme for the next five years so that it can operate five days per week rather than the current two days. The programme involves Fonterra and Sanitarium providing the ingredients for the breakfasts which are run through voluntary ‘breakfast clubs’ in each school and staffed by community volunteers and teachers.
‘Breakfast clubs‘ are present in other countries such as the United Kingdom and, as with the New Zealand variant, are voluntary. Absent from New Zealand are any free or subsidised school lunches despite many countries having provided them, universally, for decades (e.g., Finland and Sweden have entirely free, comprehensive school lunches, in the United States school meals are provided at low cost or free in over 101,000 schools).
According to the programme sponsors, on the basis of the government funding, the Kickstart Breakfast programme will,
be extended to five days a week, with a view to gradually rolling it out to all schools that want and need the programme.
The proposal has been seen by some as the Government’s attempt to ‘inoculate’, politically, the issue of child poverty and head off the more comprehensive ‘Food in Schools’ bill sponsored by Hone Harawira, leader of the Mana Party.
That bill would provide food in schools for all pupils in decile 1 and 2 schools. The proposal, that is, is not for ‘breakfast clubs’ or some small proportion of children or schools being targeted. It is ‘universal’ within the designated school deciles.
Targeting of entitlements was a signature feature of the right-wing economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s in New Zealand, as I’ll discuss later.
That targeting is part of the institutional arrangements that encourage a population to split itself in two and turn on its own members as if they were enemies – when they are likely to be ourselves.
In the United Kingdom the current distinction is now between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’. It’s a poisonous and entirely illusory distinction but it is being used by the British Government for its own political purposes – the justification of ‘benefit reforms’ to slash the social security system further. (More on the UK mythology about poverty and the poor, below).
What about New Zealand?
It’s not a pleasant truth, but it remains a truth: Many New Zealanders share the illusions being pushed in Britain.
In short, they have an impoverished understanding of the nature of poverty in so-called developed societies, including New Zealand.
And, on the back of that poor understanding, many of them indulge themselves in an exceptionally cruel form of scapegoating and vilification of those New Zealanders in poverty. It’s a judgmental and impoverished morality and it has, once again, been lured into the open, this time in relation to the issue of food in schools.
These then are the varieties of poverty: material; intellectual; moral.
To try to understand why so many New Zealanders seem to react in this way to the issue of (child) poverty it’s a good idea to get a few facts straight about the history of (child) poverty in this country.
It’s also worth thinking through the common myths seemingly believed about the poor.
Only then can the cartoons and the controversy over the ‘food in schools’ programme be usefully examined.
But, first, what’s the big deal about food in schools given that, apparently, up to three quarters of New Zealanders are in favour of it?
The issue of food in schools is a sub-set of an issue that is now referred to as ‘child poverty’ but which always used to be called, simply, ‘poverty’.
Shifts in language are fascinating to watch – they rarely happen by accident, and always are suggestive of deeper shifts. The term ‘child poverty’ highlights the plight of children in poverty, of course, but it also neatly allows the division of the poor into the ‘deserving poor‘ (i.e., the children) and, potentially, the ‘undeserving poor‘ (i.e., the parents).
The term ‘child poverty’, that is, has turned out to be a new way of perpetuating an old theme. In that sense it is also quite a beautiful example of wedge politics. Initially, when the term was first forged, the ‘wedge’ may have been seen as a means to make progress on the larger issue of poverty. The inventor(s) of the term may have imagined that by focusing on the children caught in poverty society would have been moved, through a deep sense of compassion, to alleviate poverty itself.
Sadly, the term’s usurpation of the simpler notion of ‘poverty’ has actually allowed the reverse to occur. It is now possible to salve one’s conscience over the unfortunate victims of poverty (children) while admitting, as a society, no culpability for the existence of poverty itself.
That is, the ‘child poverty’ victims are not victims of an historical – and relatively recent – process of social and economic change but, instead, they can be seen as victims of feckless parents and the supposed ills of ‘welfare dependency’. Poverty becomes something inflicted upon children by parents.
If those are the rhetorical possibilities that have opened up through use of the term ‘child poverty’ what do the broad social statistics on child poverty tell us?
Child poverty in New Zealand has an interesting recent history. Whether plotted against a ‘poverty’ definition at 60% median incomes for baseline dates of 1998 or 2007, or against 60% of contemporary median income (i.e., 60% of median income each year) the story is the same.
Child poverty rates increased during the late 1980s and early 1990s and then either flattened or declined in the latter part of the 1990s and then declined through the 2000s until 2007. Since 2008 it has flattened or even started to climb a bit. [See Figure 2, below - from the above link.]
Figure 2. Proportion of Dependent Children Aged 0–17 Years Living Below the 60% Income Poverty Threshold After Housing Costs, New Zealand 1982–2011 HES Years
Source: Perry 2012 , derived from Statistics NZ Household Economic Survey (HES) 1982–2011
It’s interesting to note that Figure 2 is taken after housing costs have been subtracted. The before housing cost graph shows how significant housing costs have been in producing poverty [See Figure 1, below - also from the above link].
Figure 1. Proportion of Dependent Children Aged 0–17 Years Living Below the 60% Income Poverty Threshold Before Housing Costs, New Zealand 1982–2011 HES Years
Source: Perry 2012 , derived from Statistics NZ Household Economic Survey (HES)1982–2011
During exactly the same years that overall increases in child poverty were increasing (especially 1988-1992) there was a corresponding sharp rise in both the proportion of children living in poverty in sole parent families and in ‘workless’ families [see following figures].
Figure 5. Proportion of Dependent Children Aged 0–17 Years Living Below the 60% Income Poverty Threshold After Housing Costs by Household Type, New Zealand 1984−2011 HES Years
Source: Perry 2012 , derived from Statistics NZ Household Economic Survey (HES) 1984–2011
Figure 6. Proportion of Dependent Children Aged 0–17 Years Living Below the 60% Income Poverty Threshold After Housing Costs, by Work Status of Adults in the Household, New Zealand 1984–2011 HES Years
Source: Perry 2012 , derived from Statistics NZ Household Economic Survey (HES) 1984–2011
This abrupt shift into high levels of poverty, including child poverty, during the years associated with the Douglas reforms and the major benefit cuts under Bolger and Richardson are well known.
What is less well known is that there was also a dramatic increase in the proportion of children in sole parent families during these very same years.
A study by Blaicklock et al. (2002, section 2.1) reported figures on sole parent families overall and in Maori and Pasifika families from 1981 to 1996 that I’ve graphed here.
Those years were also the years of growing unemployment and, importantly for many Maori, the restructuring of the public sector including the corporatisation of government departments into state owned enterprises:
The 1984 Government undertook a rapid liberalisation of the New Zealand economy, with removal of the price and wage freeze, devaluing and then floating the New Zealand dollar, and removal of all foreign exchange controls. It also began corporatising some government departments into state- owned enterprises, which were to be commercially profitable and have separate funding for any social objectives (Boston, 1995; Cheyne, O’Brien, and Belgrave, 2000; Easton, 1996; Easton, 1997a; Easton, 1997b; Kelsey, 1997; Shirley, Koopman-Boyden, Pool, and St. John, 1997a). …From 1987, state-owned enterprises were progressively privatised.
Top tax rates were chopped from 66 to 48 percent in 1986 and then further to 33 percent in 1988. Unsurprisingly, this then led the government to argue that:
the costs of maintaining the welfare state meant that New Zealand could no longer compete in the international marketplace, and that taxation and government spending needed to be reduced and individual and family responsibility promoted. Targeting entitlements to benefits and services, and deinstitutionalisation of services, would ensure government support to those considered by the Government to be at greatest risk.
…In 1990 the newly elected National Government embarked on a further radical rethink of the welfare state (Boston and Dalziel, 1992; Boston, Dalziel, and St John, 1999). The labour market was deregulated, and new tests of welfare provision eliminated many of the remaining universal elements of the welfare state. Benefit levels were reduced substantially, trade unions weakened, fees for tertiary education increased dramatically, and all areas of health, housing and social service delivery restructured.
Against that historical backdrop, some 25 years later we encounter the now familiar ill-informed commentary by so many – including the Prime Minister when he made the announcement – about the causes of (child) poverty.
There’s nothing but a cavernous intellectual void where real understanding should exist. The one, limp response by way of explanation is ‘It’s the parents’ fault!’
Down the memory hole has gone the horrific social and economic dislocation of the 1980s and 1990s and how it shattered family after family after family.
Gone is our collective memory of how entire communities disintegrated as employment, often in the public sector, disappeared overnight. Whole families were left to live in caravans, garages and sheds while ‘Waiting for the Upturn‘ – the title of one of Gordon Campbell’s articles in The Listener in the early 1990s [Couldn't find it on the internet.].
And out of public discourse has vanished any attempt to understand how the wrecking ball of economic reform in New Zealand has sent chaotic repercussing waves of dysfunction out into the future through the inevitable cascade of individual, small but tragic events it has generated in the daily lives and experiences of so many New Zealanders over the past 30 years.
Instead, we hear expressions of magical thinking as a substitute for understanding. A seemingly endless stream of spittle-flecked talk of poor people’s poor ‘choices’, poor parenting and poor ‘attitude’ becomes the sickening bully pulpit pontification of workplace chattering and columnists’ commentary. Intellectual pap replaces analysis; an ignorant sledgehammer – oxymoronically called ‘common sense’ – is used, zombie-like, to batter those least able to defend themselves.
Listening to the cliched arguments about the poor and beneficiaries that seem to garner such popular support, it’s hard not to despair. How did hard-hearted cliche come to be so popular? How has this mythology about the causes of poverty arisen?
A very good place to familiarise yourself with the kinds of so-called explanations that are now commonly heard about why families are poor is the recent report in the United Kingdom by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church.
Titled ‘The Lies We Tell Ourselves” it effectively demolishes arguments that are as commonly heard here as in the UK.
Any of these sound familiar?
MYTH 1 ‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work’
The most commonly cited cause of child poverty by churchgoers and the general public alike is that “their parents don’t want to work”. Yet the majority of children in poverty are from working households. In- work poverty is now more common than out of work poverty. It is readily accepted that across the country there are families in which three generations have never worked. Examples of such families have not been found, and the evidence suggests it is unlikely we ever will. How did we come to believe these things?
MYTH 2 ‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs’
Churchgoers and the wider public cite addiction as the second most common cause of child poverty. While addiction is devastating for the families and communities touched by it, fewer than 4% of benefit claimants report any form of addiction. How did we come to believe this is such a big factor in the lives of the 13 million people who live in poverty in the UK today?
MYTH 3 ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly’Nearly 60% of the UK population agrees that the poor could cope if only they handled their money properly. The experience of living on a low income is one of constant struggle to manage limited resources, with small events having serious consequences. Statistics show that the poorest spend their money carefully, limiting themselves to the essentials. How did we come to believe that poverty was caused by profligacy?
MYTH 4 ‘They’ are on the fiddle’Over 80% of the UK population believe that “large numbers falsely claim benefits”. Benefit fraud has decreased to historically low levels – the kind of levels that the tax system can only dream of. Less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud. The fact is that if everyone claimed and was paid correctly, the welfare system would cost around £18 billion more. So how did we come to see welfare claimants as fraudulent scroungers?MYTH 5 ‘They’ have an easy life’Over half the British public believes benefits are too high and churchgoers tend to agree. Government ministers speak of families opting for benefits as a lifestyle choice. Yet we know that benefits do not meet minimum income standards. They have halved in value relative to average incomes over the last 30 years. We know the ill and the unemployed are the people least satisfied and happy with life. Why have we come to believe that large numbers of families would choose this a lifestyle?MYTH 6 ‘They’ caused the deficit’The proportion of our tax bills spent on welfare has remained stable for the last 20 years. It is ridiculous to argue, as some have, that increasing welfare spending is responsible for the current deficit. Public debt is a problem but why is it being laid at the feet of the poorest?
No, it’s not a New Zealand study and, yes, it’s logically possible that all of those familiar arguments that the report finds to be mythical in the UK may be 100% true in New Zealand. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it. (The full report is well worth a close read.)
The reform of the public sector, the upending of fiscal (tax) policy and the financial deregulation of the 1980s; the massive cuts to benefits in the early 1990s, the deliberate engineering of employment relations to make employment insecure and increasingly casualised, temporary and intermittent – all of these have undercut the ability of social, familial and community processes to support and maintain some coherence and control in the lives of the poorest New Zealanders.
For some insight into the practical outcomes for children of these destructive changes listen to Patsy Henderson from the Miriam Centre in Whangarei explain what has happened over 30 years in Northland – about 2:00mins into the podcast
And then there’s these Al Nisbet cartoons.
There’s so much been said about them already, but one point seems to have evaded everyone – including the cartoonist: They make no sense.
Both cartoons depict families who see the food in schools programme as a means to have more money for the mythical fags, pokies/lotto, booze, etc. that are apparently the only purchases made by ‘bludgers’. As described by the New Zealand Herald:
One of the drawings published in the Marlborough Express appeared to show two brown-skinned adults in school uniforms taking advantage of the Breakfast in Schools programme to save money for cigarettes, alcohol and pokies. The other cartoon, printed in The Press showed a mixed Maori/Pakeha family discussing how great the free breakfast programme would be to help them ease their poverty, while sitting in front of lottery tickets, cigarettes and empty beer cans.
As Al Nisbet explained,
The cartoon was attacking “bludgers”, he said.
“I’m not talking about the average poverty people. I’m talking about the ones who say they’re poverty stricken, but they’re on welfare getting handouts – they have their tv and they have their fancy cellphones and they have their alcohol and they have their pokies and they have their smokes.”
It’s unclear whether or not Nisbet has had the help of the GCSB in discovering such details about the lives of some unstated number of beneficiaries but, either way, he has some remarkable details to share about the opulence of his target group.
But here’s an odd thing: They’re living this high life but they’re celebrating not having to buy a few weetbix and a bit of milk, which right-wingers are keen to point out don’t cost that much.
But here’s an even odder thing: If they’re going to make money from the food in schools programme – and “ease their poverty” – then that must mean that they are already providing their children with breakfast out of their own pocket. Yet, aren’t these ‘bludgers’ meant to be the ones who aren’t feeding their kids because they’re so keen on their smokes, pokies and booze? The food in schools programme wouldn’t put any money into their pockets. Yet, if they are already feeding their kids and they can afford all those smokes, pokies and Sky Tv subscriptions then shouldn’t we laud their budgeting skills?
And here’s an even odder odd thing: If they are already so neglectful that they aren’t providing their children with breakfast then how is a food in school programme supposed to be encouraging them not to give their children breakfast so that they can save money to spend on smokes, pokies and booze?
Think about it – the whole premise of the cartoons is nonsense.
So, if they’re nonsense, what led Nisbet to draw a couple of nonsensical cartoons?
I suspect that he just wanted to express a particular attitude he had towards New Zealand families in poverty – and on welfare – and this sort of looked like an opportunity to express it. The food in schools programme was just a trigger for him to express that view. He didn’t think about it – he just wanted to do a bit of random spleen-venting.
That’s not surprising. In this interview with Willie Jackson and John Tamihere on RadioLive Nisbet admits to being, politically, “more to the right than the left”. The attitudes towards people in poverty expressed in the cartoons are certainly “more to the right than the left”, so perhaps they are best seen as just ideological burps emitted from the acidic brew in Nisbet’s gut.
That ‘acidic brew’ is not to be laughed at, or ignored.
It is, itself, an expression of poverty – and just like the material poverty that means that children are now arriving at schools with empty stomachs, this kind of poverty also had its modern genesis in the so-called reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.
Yes, there are varieties of poverty in New Zealand, and they all owe a good part of their present expression to our recent history of economic and social policies.
And they all produce hollow, gnawing feelings in the innards of New Zealanders.