Janet Wilson discussed Phil Mann’s ‘The Poverty Trap’ with Rev Dr Penny Jamieson, Bishop of Dunedin. Dr Jamieson has recently served on the People’s Select Committee which enquired into the effects of benefit cuts, and other aspects of the National Government’s social policies, on the lives of people in Aotearoa New Zealand.
‘It’s one sided. A stringent, criticism of government and economic policy. Very much a ‘Wellington’ piece in its political tone. And not really a fable at all with its ideas for changing the system.
‘Certainly,’ the Right Rev Dr Jamieson continued, ‘Jack and Jill are archetypal characters. I heard stories with a similar tone in April when I travelled around New Zealand with the Select Committee to investigate the effects of the finance bill that cuts benefits. From people with reduced means of support who can no longer provide food and shelter.’
I have had to drastically cut down on food so that I now usually have three full meals a week –the rest are sandwiches, or bread and margarine.
I have had to become a policeman, and the thing that 1 am policing is food. That is the most horrible situation to find yourself in, to yell at your child. He comes home from school, and he just wants a snack.
In the Committee’s report is the chilling observation: ‘We believe the basic benefit is too low for anyone to survive on … to pay for basic living costs’. It also identifies ‘a new poverty trap’ due to increases in state housing rents of up to $50 per week to match market rentals. New Zealand’s poorest, beneficiaries who are state tenants, already living beyond their means with reduced incomes, are stretched even further:
I have started packing things up in my house. I don’t really know where I’m going to go but I’ve had the first rent increase and I’ve had to borrow money to pay it. There are two more rent increases to come, which is way beyond my means of paying.
These people have little incentive to seek part-time work, for the benefit abatement rate ensures that they will either earn less than the benefit or achieve little gain:
I have been working as a casual kitchen hand, in order to keep ahead of my expenses, but such effort has resulted in a reduced weekly benefit 4-8 weeks later.
Dr Jamieson reflected: ‘The way in which the article presents Jack and Jill’s plight distances you from them emotionally, but then you do see more clearly their dilemma. Mann captures the sensation of poverty just as submissions to the Select Committee convey the sense of very real, widespread misery due to current policies. So his ‘fable’ is not just a fabrication, it corresponds to a social reality. People’s lives in New Zealand today are being made subservient to economic and political theories, and it’s the government that’s doing this.
He is also showing his anger at social and political injustice in this one-sided view of society. This is not necessarily an exaggeration either. Poverty encourages petty crime, in its turn a consequence of lowered self esteem. And with broken promises from the Government to live with, people then begin to accept dishonesty as a way of life’.
She paused: ‘Mann is tugging at the heart strings, making us realise more poignantly what’s happening. All the same he doesn’t give the full picture. He makes no mention, for example, of the social service agencies and voluntary organisations which are working under enormous stress at present. And he misrepresents emergency hospital treatment. Would the family of a brain tumour patient really have to cover all costs? Even despite the ‘cost recovery’ policy of the Health System, emergency care is still in place. It would have been more convincing to have given an example of a less serious illness, but one of equal concern.’
On Mann’s recommendation to return to the Welfare State, Dr Jamieson commented: ‘Social Welfare has really lost its touch, but instead of addressing the moral duty of the state I want to ask: What is the nature of community and social interdependence at a time of unemployment, at a time when handouts are not enough? There’s a lot of anger in society right now. How can we dispel it? Mann stresses that the Employment Contracts Act has brought wages down, that large, low-wage families are at risk, that the targeting of hospital needs should be higher, that there’s an increasing division in New Zealand between the haves and have-nots. We need to ask: What is our duty when we recognise that the burden of accommodating children should be spread? When a benefit or pension which used to be 80% of the minimum income, is now a mere 25%? When people who can’t afford not to work now, are forced to search for work that either doesn’t exist or is poorly paid due to the Employment Contracts Act?
‘There’s a lot of talk about economic recovery at present. We’re told that the balance of payments is improving. Does this mean that the benefits will increase accordingly? Business sectors of the community are self-protective – especially small businesses – understandable since the share market crash of ’87. But it doesn’t help in a society in which people, encouraged by government policies to be competitive, are turning against each other. This government has changed the meaning of the word ‘fairness’, which used to mean ‘equality’, in attending to economic recovery at the expense of the need of those who are deprived.
‘The message that we should take away is that social improvement will only come through an articulation of concern. Democracy works when enough people give voice to their point of view for those in power to take notice. The church must do more than fulfil its traditional role of taking up the position of the poor by lobbying the government; for the government has not given much lead to developing alternative structures of community care and support. We must make heard questions like: Is this the kind of society we want to live in? Does the goal of economic recovery necessarily mean a better society?’
Janet Wilson lectures in the English Department of the University of Otago.