Category Archives: Poverty

Why can’t we trust them?

There is one great need in a poor person’s life, and that is money. With money, all the problems of hunger, of cold, all those things go away, because money solves them all. So what do we give poor people? As little money as we can! Instead, there are all sorts of assistance programmes, and homelessness, hunger and misery where those fall short. Instead of giving poor people money, we try to give them food, or clothes, or cheap doctor’s visits. I think this approach is both wrong and insulting.

The idea behind giving poor people stuff instead of money is that if we give them the things they need rather than dollars, they can’t spend their money on wasteful or frivolous things, and they will actually get what they need. And I say that’s a crock. It’s incredibly patronising to assume that poor people will go and spend their money on ‘bad’ things like they don’t know the needs they have. For all the fringe cases that are appealed to, of drug addicts and gamblers who spend money they don’t have on their vices, there are thousands of people who know exactly what they need and would go and get those things if they only had the resources.

Stop painting poor people as irresponsible, as children who can’t be trusted with more than their wee bit of pocket money. Poor people are expert budgeters and bargain hunters, wringing every last drop of value from every penny they have. It’s demeaning to force them to use food banks and other such initiatives. It’s an insult to their skills, giving them money only in the form of emergency chits that can only be spent in certain places on certain things. It’s humiliating, and it’s wrong

Who are policy-makers to say that they know better than people living in the trenches? What rich person understands what resources a poor person needs? There are times when food is nice, but money would have been better, because you can live on rice for a few days while you pay the power bill so the lights stay on. Having Weet-bix and milk in that time is really nice, but it’s not essential, and you could have used that resource to be eating hot rice in the light, instead of cold Weet-bix in the dark. Other times, subsidised power is nice, but you could have sat in the dark a bit more and made rent this week, rather than sitting in the dark on the pavement, surrounded by your belongings.

Budgeting an inadequate income is a balancing act, one that many poor individuals and families are very good at. Why do we not trust them with enough money to make the balancing act a little less precarious? What kind of smug superiority complex says that people with adequate resources know what’s best for people without adequate resources?

People know what they need, and if they have money they can buy it. It’s really that easy. Give poor people money, and watch them thrive, and pump it back into the economy. 

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.

A cold response

Over the last week, it has come to light that at least two, and probably more, people have died partly as a result of cold, damp Housing New Zealand houses. It’s pretty shocking that it’s happening in a country with the resources to prevent that. We’re not a third-world country! We can and should do better.

Our housing minister doesn’t think so, though. His response, when questioned on the issue?

People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new.

How can he be so callous? It’s true that people have been dying of preventable cold-related illnesses right through the history of human existence, but that is not the point. The point is, we have the capacity to help, to prevent these occurrences – they are called preventable diseases for a reason – and we just aren’t.

Who are we if we take the minister’s stance? We are cold, we are heartless, and we are not fit to run a country. Especially not one that is supposed to support those down on their luck. Leaving them to die in the cold is reprehensible.

A couple of nights ago here it was cold, about 5 degrees. I needed many blankets to stay warm enough to sleep – I couldn’t sleep through the cold. I thought of all the kids with not enough blankets – poor people aren’t usually investing what money they have in lovely thick warm blankets – and not enough money to turn the heater on. They’re not sleeping well. What blankets they have are damp from their dreadful housing. There’s no hope of drying them in the sun in the depths of winter. It’s bleak.

We. Can. Do. Better. We’re not spending the full amount allocated for HNZ maintenance. 60%, Bill English boasts, is being spent, like this cost saving is a good thing instead of something that is literally killing New Zealanders. We’re spending on flag referendums, on subsidies to conference centres, on things that Don’t Matter. How about we spend on something that does matter – spend the money that’s already budgeted for it. It’s not a hard concept.

The pressures NGOs face

Yesterday I wrote a bit about NGOs providing essential social services. Today, I’m looking at the rest of the article I referenced there, on the funding issues that NGOs currently face. This government not only pushes essential social services off onto NGOs – it also underfunds them. Badly.

The author, Richard Wood, notes that even services which are ‘fully specified’ (which I think means fully funded for the services specified in their contracts, but it’s a piece of government jargon that Google wasn’t keen on giving up the definition of) are underfunded. If the government is short-changing the services which are supposed to be fully funded, how is it for partly-funded services? Pretty dire, would be my guess.

None of the funding for NGOs has been inflation adjusted since 2009, and even further back the inflation adjustment has not kept pace with actual inflation (which is about 30 percent in the last 12 years!). As the services struggle, and fall further and further behind, the government gets to look at them and tut-tut over their budgeting and fiscal responsibility. It’s rubbish.

At the same time as this government underfunding, philanthropists have signalled to the government that it’s not their job to fund essential social services, that these should rightly be funded by the government. So, with not enough government funding and little philanthropic money, core services are struggling badly.

Why on earth are essential and critical social services being treated like this? I suspect that it’s because the government doesn’t see them as essential or critical. They see them as a money pit that brings no tangible returns – despite the billions that mental and physical illness, criminal behaviour, homelessness and the like cost the economy annually.

We’re talking about social needs in economic terms again, and it’s wrong. It’s a people cost, and people are worth more than money. Perhaps the next government will see some sense.

Cold damp housing kills

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the death of Emma-Lita Bourne, who passed away from complications of pneumonia. Her cold, damp home was ruled to be a factor in her death. Today, news broke of the death of Soesa Tovo, a 37-year-old man from South Auckland, who died after a year of medical requests for the family to be moved from their cold and damp home He struggled with heart and lung issues, including a hospitalisation for bilateral pneumonia.

Over and over again, social workers associated with various health care organisations including the hospital that treated him for pneumonia and his local Primary Healthcare Organisation, wrote to Housing New Zealand to request that he, his wife, and their six children be moved. Their three-bedroom home was damp, mouldy, and so cold that the whole family slept in the lounge together – the only room in the house with carpet. The ceiling was insulated, but that was not nearly enough to make it a warm dry home.

Housing New Zealand homes are killing people. Many are in locations already known for being cold and damp anyway, and the houses need extra care to keep out the moisture and mould. But the government hasn’t been maintaining the houses, and they’re falling into disrepair. That sounds quite sterile – ‘disrepair’ – but it’s murderous. It’s literally killing people.

The school noticed the kids were sick all the time. The father was in and out of hospital. Yet Housing New Zealand did nothing at all to help this family. You can talk all you like about waiting lists and fairness and appreciating what you have, but I want to know why there was a family living in a home unfit for human habitation. They won’t be the only ones, either. We just don’t hear about the others until someone dies.

State housing was originally built to give workers strong, healthy homes so that they could be at their most productive. Today they’re storehouses of misery. We can do better! What we lack is the will to do better. This government gives precisely zero shits about the welfare of its poor people.

The kicker for the Tovo family is that, almost a year after Soesa died, they are still in that same small damp dump. Even the struggle of grief, added on to the list of illness and misery already catalogued, was not enough to get that family a better home.

What does it take to get help around here?

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.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This is considered a basic right, something that New Zealand has signed its agreement to. We have the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to social security. So what’s going on with our government?

We have a right to adequate food – so why do we have to fight for food grants, and why are various  benefits not actually enough to feed their recipients on? Budgeting services across the country are sending their clients to food banks week after week because the clients have budgeted their money well and responsibly, and still there’s not enough to buy adequate food.

We have a right to adequate clothing – but there are kids all over the country who are being given socks, shoes, and jackets by KidsCan because their parents cannot afford these things.

We have the right to adequate housing, but our government refused to take up a bill proposing a warrant of fitness for rental homes so poor people in cheap accommodation are not living in places unfit for habitation. Our government is also selling off our stocks of social housing, ostensibly to social housing providers, but actually more likely into the hands of investors wanting to make a profit from them.

We have the right to adequate medical care, but our healthcare system is struggling under the weight of increasing need coupled with a static budget. Things that are nice to have are just off the list, and things that are utterly essential are pared back. Elective surgery lists are so long that by law most people are not officially on the list, because the list can only be six months long.

We have the right to necessary social services, but CYFS is so underfunded that it has had to cut back on necessary social welfare checks on foster children. The education budget is static, meaning that the education of our children is being slowly eroded, while teachers shudder under the weight of paperwork that they are forced to complete. Homeless shelters subsidised by the government are fully booked out, forced to deal with newly released prisoners and those fresh from mental health inpatient units, for which they are unequipped.

We have the right to security in case of lack of livelihood through circumstances beyond our control. Yet the government takes a punitive approach to beneficiaries, cutting benefits for minor sins, things that shouldn’t even be considered wrongdoing, like not applying for enough jobs in a week. Single parents are particularly victimised, with further restrictions on their parenting choices appearing with every new iteration of social development policy. The sick and disabled, distinctly named here as deserving of social security, are pushed toward work that they are in many cases not able to do effectively or safely, rather than being supported.

The current government is punitive, punishing people for being poor, being unemployed, being a solo parent, being ill. It’s not fair, and it’s directly against an international declaration that we have signed. Those things don’t really mean anything, it seems, unless we’re judging another nation for not following them.

Increasing education to deal with unemployment

A commenter replied to one of my earlier posts that eat with the idea of upskilling the unemployed in order to make them more employable. He said

Creating more people with qualifications will not change the fact that there simply aren’t jobs.

And he’s completely right. Upskilling beneficiaries without increasing the number of skilled jobs available will only result in a very well-educated pool of beneficiaries, possibly with the debt that is incurred with any form of higher education adding to their troubles. What use is this?

In the end, we need more jobs in order to have less unemployment. It’s just maths. I don’t know how to increase job numbers – that’s something that economists understand, not Classical Studies graduates. But I do understand that we can’t employ people in jobs that don’t exist. It simply makes no sense. Politicians talk about education, about breaking the cycle of poverty, about reducing substance abuse and criminality and all these things, but if there aren’t jobs to walk into, then you can’t walk out of poverty.

I know a lot of beneficiaries . . .

‘I know a lot of beneficiaries and they are all dead-beat shitheads who will never work’ – good for you. You’re generalising to a huge and diverse population. Three quarters of all unemployment beneficiaries will be off the benefit in under a year, and in the meantime every extra penny makes a difference in their kids’ lives.

Even if someone is on a benefit long-term, $25 per week makes a huge difference to their kids’ lives – because no, beneficiaries do not all waste every penny on booze, drugs, and gambling. They are human, and have the human range of vices, but also the human impulse to protect and provide for their kids. There are always exceptions, but they should be seen for what they are – exceptions.

There are middle-class parents who smoke and drink and gamble their money away, and a $25 per week pay rise will not benefit their kids at all – shall we say that they don’t deserve their raise? No, because that’s bullshit. We don’t do that to ‘respectable’ people, why should be do that to poor people?

There’s this idea that poor people are that way because of some moral failing. That’s just blatantly wrong. People are poor for a variety of reasons, and ‘because they’re a lazy sheathed’ is way down the list of causes. Coming from a poor background, or being Maori, or being disabled, are much more common reasons, and we can stop pretending that any of those things are moral failings. Poor people are not inherently scum, and treating them like they are makes you a despicable person.

The way to tackle poverty is to make sure poor people have enough to live on. It’s that easy. Poor people tend to be excellent budgeters, because otherwise they’d starve in the streets. They know how to get the most out of the worst. Give them some fucking dignity and let them live like whole people, rather than half-shunned lives.

The answer is not this or that intricate programme that someone dreams up – fruit and vegetable baskets to poor families do nothing to get the power bill paid. A meat hamper is pretty fucking useless if you don’t have any gas to cook it on. Insulation in the ceiling is no good when there is water seeping up through the floorboards.

Give. Poor people. Enough. Money. Stop judging them. Start trusting them with their own lives.

Scared stiff of WINZ

An article ran in Stuff yesterday discussing WINZ and beneficiaries. It spoke of the fear that beneficiaries feel about the benefit process and about WINZ, the dehumanisation and lack of privacy that people visiting WINZ experience, and the fact that benefits are not enough to live on. In response, the government minister, Anne Tolley, trumpeted the government’s achievement of reducing beneficiaries, specifically sole parents, quite dramatically.

People are scared of WINZ. They have the combination of great power over people’s lives, deliberately unhelpful and unfriendly policies, and a collection of case managers that can be very jaded and cynical. They just have too much to hold over desperately disadvantaged people, and the power dynamic is horrific. Listening to stories of beneficiaries and their interactions with the system is uniformly heartbreaking, and anyone who knows a few poor people knows that there are some that are not getting their entitlements because they don’t have the skill or the strength to beat the system’s discrimination, or because they just can’t fight any more. Others will not be getting their entitlements because they’re just too afraid of or beaten down by the system to ask. It’s rare for someone to say that they’re happy with WINZ assistance and processes.

One of the things raised in the article was the lack of toilets available in WINZ offices. How degrading is it to either not bother with bathrooms because you don’t think your clients are worthy of such services, or because you don’t think you can trust them with such facilities. Which is it, WINZ? Does it matter? Both options are pretty bad. Are there others I have missed? All the arguments I can think of come down to money (they’re not worth it), laziness (we don’t want to deal with it), or prejudice (they’ll just make a mess of it). It’s garbage, no matter which excuse they might use. It should be noted that the minister did not actually offer an excuse in the article. Maybe she realises how bad any reasoning would sound.

Another issue touched on in the article was the lack of privacy in the WINZ offices. It’s a single big open-plan room, with a couple of mid-sized meeting rooms to run courses in. Not a scrap of privacy, you can hear what people are saying at the next table with ease, and anyone going through tough times can look forward to airing their pain to a room full of others, any tears on display. I do not see a good reason for such a setup – it may make security easier, it may mean that more desks can be fitted into a smaller space, but what it takes away from the client shouldn’t be worth those small benefits, benefits that are to the department, not those who use it.

People dealing with WINZ are treated very poorly. With the excuses of cost-cutting and playing off people’s prejudices, the department gets away with treating people like they’re on a factory line, processing them with no regard to their emotional or physical needs, nor much reference to what they are entitled to. There is always someone ready to come out and say ‘they’re just dole bludgers, they don’t deserve any better’ – there were a few that made comment on the Stuff article – and to them I say ‘they’re human beings, and they deserve the same respect as your average Joe, or for that matter the same respect as your average billionaire or royal’. Humanity doesn’t come in different grades depending on how much money they have. People are people and they all deserve the right to respect, to dignity, to a place to pee.