In a recent debate in the House on the Government’s Vulnerable Children Bill, which Labour supports, National Party members including Judith Collins made a great show of saying that poverty was no excuse for child abuse. Now no one in the House was saying that poverty was an excuse for child abuse, but I thought it was interesting that such a big issue was made of this. What the Justice Minister was railing against was the suggestion from Labour members that there is a strong association between poverty and many social problems.
It is this unwillingness to accept the links between poverty and inequality on the one hand, and the vast array of social problems on the other, that is a real obstacle to social progress in New Zealand today.
I believe the case is pretty clear. If we look at the data it shows that so many of the social problems that preoccupy us today are linked to poverty. Public health researchers talk about the “social determinants of health”. Ill health, reduced life expectancy, cardio-vascular risk, diabetes, obesity are all experienced disproportionately by the poorest members of our society.
Visit any district court and you’ll see that both the perpetrators and the victims of crime are drawn mostly from the most disadvantaged members of our society. This is not to say that the residents of the leafy suburbs don’t commit crimes, but the statistics are clear.
The authors of The Spirit Level, argued that countries with a big gap between rich and poor have higher crime rates, more mental illness, lower life expectancy, lower levels of trust. You name it, almost every one of the social problems we read about in the paper every day, are worse the more unequal your society is. They argued that the more a society is divided into haves and have-nots the less it is inclined collectively to look after everyone and make sure no one is left behind. Also that inequality – between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless – creates a psychological stress that takes its toll on us and that lies at the heart of much violence, and risk-taking behaviour.
Is it any wonder then that as we have become a much more unequal society over the last 30 years, we have also excelled, a kind of gold medallist among nations when it comes to violence against children, rates of mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy?
It is worth reflecting on a bit of history. Through the middle years of the 20th century, from the Great Depression to the 1970s, politics and government was shaped by the mission to eliminate the poverty and insecurity that were seen as a breeding ground for all the social ills. The job of government was to create economic security and opportunity. Government policy here and around the western world focused on full employment, and home ownership, and reducing inequalities through progressive taxation, and strong public education and health systems.
Over the last 30 years we have dismantled much of that architecture. As a result we have become a very unequal society. Half our schools have kids so hungry they cannot learn properly. Diseases of poverty, wiped out by welfare states last century, have returned.
The job of government today seems to be grappling with a long list of social problems: violent crime, alcoholism, smoking, obesity, diabetes, youth suicide, an epidemic of depression, teen pregnancy. We have come full circle. It is like we have un-learned the lessons of the twentieth century. We now have levels of inequality on a par with those of the 1920s and 1930s. Is it any wonder that the social ills have followed?
I am not suggesting the 1950s was some kind of golden age. Nor that every social problem can be reduced to an economic cause. Nor heaven forbid that poverty is any kind of excuse for violent or anti-social behaviour. But we must recognise that poverty and inequality create an environment that is bad for us as human beings. They bring out the worst in us, they makes us unhealthy, fearful, angry and much less able to overcome the stresses and tensions that fuel violence.
If we don’t recognise that, then we will never be able to really build the foundations for a happier, more prosperous and healthier society.
Social policy will continue to become as it has done under Minister Paula Bennett ever more punitive, with an army of social workers and police and public servants case managing the lives of thousands of citizens branded as dysfunctional.
This is why I believe politics in 2013 must re-focus on economic security and providing the opportunity for people to get ahead and live good decent lives. We must have smart thoughtful social policy aiming at giving people a hand up, helping people through the difficult times in life.
But above all government should return to what was its traditional Kiwi job description: building a society where every child has the best start in life no matter what side of town they live on, or what their parents do for a living. Delivering well-paid secure jobs. Affordable and healthy housing. Good schools. And a commitment to both lifting people out of poverty, and reducing the gap between rich and poor.
These are the things the Government can and should do. We’ve done it before in this country and we can do it again.