Category Archives: Politics

More on cold, damp housing

A lot has been written in the last few days about sub-standard housing in the wake of the deaths of Emma-Lita Bourne and Soesa Tovo. Today I’m just picking out a few of the more interesting things that have been said.

From Judith Collins, government minister, who has never, as far as I can tell, known what poverty is like:

I think the best place to start is in social housing. This area provides housing for the most vulnerable New Zealanders who realistically have the least choice of all when it comes to housing. If Parliament expects private landlords to improve their houses, surely Parliament and Government should lead by example, rather than by law.

Tell me, how many landlords are going to look at well-maintained social housing and go ‘look, they’re doing it all right and getting bugger in rent. How about we increase our standards and accept low rent too!’. They’re not going to do it. Leading by example only works when people have some motivation to follow you. There’s no motivation to spend money that can conceivably be held on to until the last possible moment, for no real reward other than ‘yay we did what the government does’ and possibly ‘yay our tenants are happy’ . . . or not, when you hike the rent to cover the cost of the renovations. Leading by example just isn’t going to work. There needs to be some incentive.

From one Against the Current blog, rather left-leaning I would say:

The answer cannot be just to wave our fists at Nick Smith but to campaign for the nationalisation of the power companies so they can be managed as social utilities providing affordable power to all. They should be brought back into public ownership, and run democratically in the interests of workers and consumers. Then, prices can be controlled, bills made affordable, and profits invested in cheaper, cleaner and safer energy supplies, rather than in shareholder dividends.

I don’t know if public ownership with the right solution, but the way it’s put here sounds pretty bloody tempting really. Running it as a social enterprise and knocking prices down to where people can actually afford to run their heaters sounds like a very good idea right now, as one in ten face a winter where they will not run their heater at all. It’s five degrees out there in Wellington right now. Ten percent of people out there, give or take, are shivering through it. It’s not good enough. Maybe public ownership is the answer, maybe some sort of regulation is better, I don’t know, but the price of power is just too high, and the current model is not working.

Finally, Pete George of YourNZ, a right-leaning blog that claims to be ‘Reason, Reasonable, Robust’, has this gem for us:

But no matter what the Government does they cannot ensure everyone heats their house adequately, or ventilates their house adequately, or keeps their carpets and beds relatively free of allergens, or budgets effectively, or the many other things that can contribute to a family’s well-being.

Can we stop blaming the victims of economics for their own deprivation? It’s not a matter of choosing to run your heat pump and dehumidifier, or vacuuming, or watching your pennies. If it were, then there are a whole lot of people who were a whole lot healthier! These people. Cannot. Afford. To. Run. A. Heater. I suppose that the government really can’t ensure that everyone runs their heater – because there are people who look at whatever heating is provided in their home and laugh bitterly, knowing that it will never be turned on. They live in damp areas where opening your windows every day will do precisely nothing for the damp, except maybe exchange your inside, slightly warmer damp, for outside, slightly colder damp.

Keeping their carpet and bedding ‘relatively free of allergens’ has got to be one of the more ridiculous things I’ve seen. Ho do you keep your carpets free from allergens? Well, you vacuum  with one of those HEPA thingies, right? That required owning a vacuum cleaner, and bags for it, and so on. Those that can afford such things use them at about the same rate as richer people, I would wager – some just don’t but many do. But vacuum cleaners are luxuries. And what about the bedding? You keep that allergen free by washing sheets often – which poor people do as much as they can, but getting the only set of sheets you own for the bed washed and dried in one day in winter is a challenge sometimes. A dryer is WAY out of the question, and a trip to the laundromat to dry them off can mean no milk for breakfast that week. Then there’s the blankets and duvets and so on – things which need dry-cleaning. Ha! That’s bloody expensive. It just doesn’t register as high on the needs list as food and rent and power.

And then, there’s ‘budgets effectively’. If I had a penny for every person that has blamed poor people’s budgeting for their poverty, I would start a programme of insulating homes, and get a good way through the crappier areas of Wellington without blinking. How do you get it through people’s heads that you cannot budget effectively without the first tool of budgeting – money. When your money runs out before the end of the list of essentials, you cannot budget for the less urgent things. You just don’t have the resources. You can ask any budgeting advisory service in the country what they see most, and they will tell you – people whose money runs out before their needs do, who don’t even get into their list of wants.

There has been some sensible dialogue around this issue, and some stuff that just makes me rant. I think there are some people that need a short sharp dose of reality around this.

Help is everywhere

Today an article came out about a coroner’s decision that was released during the week regarding the death of a fifteen-month-old girl named Emma-Lita Bourne. She died of a brain haemorrhage related to the pneumonia she had been suffering during the time leading up to her death. The coroner ruled that her death was partly due to the inaction of Housing New Zealand, the government agency that is responsible for the national social housing stocks. The house was cold and damp, and contributed to her illness, according to the coroner.

I then made the mistake of reading the comments on the article. Many of them were well-considered and thought out, but one stood out. It reads “this is pathetic journalism. Help is everywhere for those who need it.”

I call bullshit.

If there was help everywhere for those that need it, we would have no suffering in the country, yet that is blatantly untrue. Food banks would never have to turn people away, or if they did, there would be a service that took up the slack instantly. There would be no cold, damp, leaking housing stock, because anyone that found themselves in such a place would apply for help and it would be given. Is that our reality?

People who say things like that have no idea what poverty is like, or their experience of poverty is atypical to the point of being alien to your average poor person. The hopelessness and powerlessness of having no good choices, no lifelines, no avenues of escape are not in any way familiar to them, and they are pontificating from a place of comfort into a world they just don’t understand.

I find it shameful that there are people that misunderstand the reality of poverty in this country so thoroughly that they think such things. But then I think, how on earth would you educate such people. I think that if I had no experience of being broke (and I was never in desperate poverty, just student poverty) I would likely not understand what it was like. But then, I have education and empathy – maybe I would be less ridiculous than this creature.

The resources available to people in deep poverty are sparse and inadequate. Stating that help is everywhere is just straight bullshit, spouted from a place of privilege. A place where there is money to turn the heater on, and the roof doesn’t let the rain in. The world of the really poor just isn’t like that. It’s about being cold and hungry and never really having enough of anything.

A report put out by the Ministry of Social Development on Friday pointed out that 200,000 children are in situations like Emma-Lita’s. How many of them become so unwell they end up dying because of their living conditions? It’s shocking that such a thing happens in a country as wealthy as this, with a strong history of social support. What has happened to us that we have let our social safety net develop so many gaping holes?

We can do better by our people living in poverty. We can actually spend money that is allocated for Housing New Zealand maintenance on that maintenance (because our Housing Minister is proud to state that only 60% of the maintenance budget is currently being spent, and it has been like that for several years). We can raise benefit levels to a point where people can afford the power to heat their homes, or we can subsidise power. A heat pump is no good when you can’t afford to run it. We can pay people enough to put food on their tables, and we can feed the kids at school to take some of the strain off people’s budgets.

We can do better, but this current government will not, because they don’t understand grinding poverty. Even those that had to rely on social security to get by did so in an era when such things were properly funded, and you could live well enough on benefit dollars, in properly funded state houses that were relatively new. It’s not an experience at all parallel to the ruins of the welfare state we find ourselves in now.

Help isn’t everywhere. It’s hiding away, it’s hard to access, and it’s out of reach for many people. Middle and upper class New Zealand need to stop deluding themselves about this.

Investing in mental health care

Investing in mental health care sounds like a great idea, right? Put more money into the mental health system, more people get care and logically more good outcomes ensue. Right?

Well, when this government heard ‘investing’ they went, ‘you know what, let’s get private investors to fund mental health initiatives using a bond scheme, where the investors get a return on their money if the scheme hits preselected targets’. And there went good ideas, flying out the window like so much smoke after a toaster fire.

Are. You. Kidding? When did it become a good idea to put mental health treatment in the hands of private investors who are prioritising a return on investment, not on actual positive outcomes for the patients involved? Sure, the key performance indicators (KPIs) might seem as though they demand good results for the clients, but we are not looking at a situation where people are looking towards client’s best interests.

The first scheme to be proposed under this new framework is one in which mental health patients are moved into work. The potential for abuse is huge – pushing people who aren’t ready into work that’s not suitable, employed by people with no understanding and ripe for abuse and failure. But it’s got to work for investors, so it’s going to work, dysfunctionally, checking boxes and playing with people’s mental health in return for a few dollars.

I don’t know how this is supposed to benefit anyone except the investors. It’s going to cost the government money. It’s not going to do any favours to the sick people involved. It’s not, as far as I can see, fiscally sensible. And it’s an experiment.

This is an experiment that has only been tried in the UK and the US, and those experiments are so new that we don’t know the outcomes yet. Sure, there’s some think-tank in New Zealand saying it’s a good idea, but it’s an unknown.

Should we be experimenting with social bonds on vulnerable mentally ill people? No, and no, and yet again no. Mental health care is already so bad, and this is not going to make it better. It’s a crazy capitalist experiment, one that we shouldn’t be trialling on people with enough serious challenges in their lives already

Tehe Th

Benefit addicts and elitism

I think the focus around throwing benefit money at people to do nothing (or to jump through increasingly ridiculous hoops for WINZ) is the real issue. Instead of investing in educating and upskilling those not working we create a benefit addicted underclass with an entitlement mentality. Pay people a benefit if they enrol at university/Polytechnics and base their benefit rates on their grade average.

So says one hapless Stuff commenter, on an article about the issue of underemployment. I do wonder sometimes if people actually listen to what they are saying sometimes.

A benefit addicted underclass with an entitlement mentality. Well, people keep telling me there are dole bludgers living it up on the taxpayer dime, never intending to work and living well despite it. I have to ask, though, where are these people? If they were as common as it’s thought, then the government would be making an example out of them, whether punitively as a warning or positively when they’re finally off the dole. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe there’s a huge class of people out there that are different from my romantic notion of beneficiary life. But it’s not my experience, and it’s not backed up anywhere by any statistics I’ve seen. More than three quarters of unemployment beneficiaries are on the dole for less than a year – that doesn’t stink of a benefit addicted underclass. Maybe it’s the sickness, invalid’s, and sole parent benefits that people hang around on . . . um. Yes. That’s what those benefits are there for. People who have needs that are not just ‘out of work’. Chronically ill people may need a benefit their whole lives, and I will not begrudge them one cent. Sole parents are doing something very difficult, and they should be supported by everyone around them, not threatened with losing their only source of income.

A benefit addicted underclass who all rely on not-quite-enough to get by on each week. Really. It’s just such an attractive lifestyle, I can see why so many people would freely choose it. Back in the real world, people are on benefits for many reasons, and they’re far too complex to be dealt with in the schemes of the Stuff commenter mentality.

“Pay people a benefit if they enrol at university/Polytechnics and base their benefit rates on their grade average.” Oh honey. It’s like you had half a good thought and then your brain ran out of go-juice. We do pay people a benefit to go to Uni/Polytech – it’s called the Student Allowance. We do that to make education more available to people, to help them upskill. But there are people who will never do well in formal education, and they deserve to live just as much as a Rhodes Scholar (who, incidentally, is just on a very fancy kind of benefit). Tertiary qualifications are out of reach for some people for many reasons, medical, educational, and personal. Basing benefit rates on participation in tertiary education is very much elitist. Basing people’s worth on their enrolment at a higher learning facility is a few shades of ridiculous.

Basing benefits on grade averages has got to be one of the dumber ideas I’ve seen recently. There is just so much wrong with it. People who are disadvantaged tend to not perform as well academically as people who grew up with fewer impediments. People who are on a benefit because they are unwell may find it harder to attain higher grades. People who have a serious life event come up not only have to worry about their grades – they also have to worry about their budget getting cut over it. Honestly, when did this sound like it would be a good idea?

This sort of thinking assumes that every beneficiary has about the same advantages in life as the thinker, and that the beneficiaries are in a bad position because they are making bad choices. That’s just not the way the world works, and so applying solutions that involve putting pressure on people to make ‘good choices’ doesn’t work. They don’t have the right base to make ‘good choices’ from.

A few more dollars in your pocket – in exchange for your right to parent

Yesterday’s Budget was . . . not as horrible as I thought it might be. My beloved Health sector didn’t get much more than this year, or at least not in the areas I’m passionate about, and neither did Education, but at least there were no cuts. The bit that everyone’s talking about, though, is welfare. There’s big news on that front.

The big news is a really bloody big deal. $25 per week more to each beneficiary – that’s more than a third of my food budget when I was on the student allowance, to feed a couple of kids in addition to myself. $25 would have been revolutionary, and it will be to the lives of some kids. There are catches (of course) that I don’t fully understand yet, but I’ll come back to them tomorrow when I’ve read some more learned opinions than my own. Still. $25. That’s something I never expected from this government. It says that yes, they are actually kind of attempting to sort of keep their child poverty promises. This won’t take effect until April next year, but it’s still a pretty big shard of hope for beneficiaries.

As well as extra money for beneficiaries, low-income families that already receive the In-Work Tax Credit will receive an extra $12.50 per week. It’s not a lot in absolute terms, but that’s 12 loaves of bread, or six litres of milk, or two and a half kilos of mandarins – a big difference when you’re living on not a lot. It would even stretch to a fish and chip dinner for the family every so often – a real treat for many kids.

So where’s the downside, the seamy underbelly of the child poverty-addressing budget? Well, parents on the Sole Parent Support will be obligated to work from when their child turns three (rather than when they turn five and start school), for a minimum of 20 hours per week. And here we land in the ‘poor people don’t have the right to parent’ territory.

Parenting is important, and it really is a full-time job. It’s not so much when the kids go off to school, but under-fives demand a lot of time and effort. The idea that poor parents should have to send their kids to daycare or preschool while they work, an obligation to be enshrined in law, is blatantly classist. We live in a society that was set up to protect families and children. We live in a society that says it values parenting. But we live in a society that has decided that it doesn’t value poor people’s parenting? There is already an obligation for Sole Parent Support recipients to ensure their child is in Early Childhood Education – why? Because we don’t trust poor people to raise their kids properly, to make the best decisions they can for them. It’s bullshit. We wouldn’t dare enforce work or any parenting practice on white, middle class women. Why are we doing it to poor women?

Our Prime Minister says that it’s fair to force poor parents to work, because “Tens of thousands of Kiwis do that every day, and they do that half the time after 14 weeks”. It’s true that many parents choose to return to the workforce after their paid parental leave is over, and that is right for their families. Others are forced to return because they haven’t the income to do otherwise. This essentially means that people without resources are forced to return to work whether it’s good for their family or not – a situation that Mr Key’s family would have no familiarity with, as his mother was allowed to stay on the benefit in a state house while she raised him, and his wife became a full-time mother to their children. Key is essentially taking away from our people the advantages that his family has enjoyed since they emigrated here. It is shameful.

Not only is the budget requiring parents on benefits to look for work when their child is three, they are also increasing the hours needed to count as part time from 15 to 20 hours per week. Where are these hours going to come from? We already have a huge pool of unemployed and underemployed people in this country. Until the people unencumbered with children, with the time and ability to work available to them are employed, why are we pressuring people with the rather important task of raising the next generation to work? And what employer is going to take a beneficiary with kids on as a part-timer if they can choose someone who might be available for extra hours at short notice, who won’t be called away in a hurry because their child is sick, who won’t have to take days off in order to care for their child? It may be illegal to discriminate in that way, but in the real world that’s the way it happens.

This budget carries some promise for many beneficiaries, and a huge penalty to others. As long as this government refuses to value parenting as an important job and one that even poor people are capable of doing well and should be allowed to do, it’s only going to get worse. It’s a couple of years to the next election, but I hope that next time around there will be a change to someone with a bit of a heart.

Less about poverty, more about people

On Monday the NZ Herald ran a piece about Grant Robertson, the new Labour finance spokesman. In it, he said something I found interesting. He was talking about wanting to ‘humanise’ Labour’s economic policy.

That will mean less talk about poverty and the current account deficit, important as they are, and more talk about people and work.

Labour has always been the worker’s party, and focusing on work makes sense. It appeals to the historic working-class voter base that may not have turned out at last election, and those that didn’t vote in the last election could well be the key to winning the next one. So talking about work, about hours and pay and working conditions, is a solid strategy.

What makes less sense to me is partially or wholly discarding the narrative of Labour as champions of the poor. Those on benefits are another group that often doesn’t turn out for elections, and appealing to them would seem to me to be a useful strategy. “We are not going to not talk about poverty, because we have to”, he says, giving the impression that it’s only going to be talked about because they have no other choice. Is the suggestion that if it wasn’t for that pesky expectation that Labour cares about the poor, they would be dropped from economic policy altogether?

Poverty is about people. People that deserve consideration, whether they’re working poor or beneficiaries. Economic policy has to address poverty in order to have any credibility as a comprehensive strategy. Saying that it’s going to be ‘more about people and work’ is erasing the disadvantaged, something that I thought Labour was better about not doing. Better, perhaps, but evidently not great.

Why is it that when political parties want to look credible, the first thing they do is cut their social justice policies? Why is there this perception that serious politicking requires you to be hard on poor people? It’s perfectly acceptable to be committed to a fair deal for all and also to be a real contender in politics.