Numbers are meaningless when families are living in cars

Housing affordability was an issue in the election – but the discussion was derailed by arguments about the intricacies of capital gains tax and exactly how many hundreds of thousands of dollars constitutes “affordable” house prices.

This is the real story, which is now getting some post-election coverage in the Herald.

Salvation Army Manukau community ministries director Pam Hughes said some families were now paying more than 70 per cent of their incomes on rent, but could not keep up payments and came to her service in crisis.

“We are seeing an increase in families in vehicles. Families in cars have been increasing over the last three or four months, simply because there isn’t enough affordable accommodation for them,” she said.

The Tuuu family – mum, dad and their six children – have been living in a van for a week because they cannot find a house. …

Tamasailau Tuuu, his wife and their children, aged from 15 to 3-months-old, were doubling up with another couple and their three children in a three-bedroom house after their landlord sold their own rented home in Clendon, South Auckland, two months ago. But their friends asked them to move out.

“She was worried about her tenancy, and the neighbours were complaining about my baby crying at night, and the house was overcrowded and her kids needed their own privacy,” Mrs Tuuu explained.

That’s right – before they had to start living in their car, the eight members of the Tuuu family were sharing a three-bedroomed house with five other people.

Tamasailau Tuuu is a fulltime worker.

Meanwhile, on the Herald’s economy pages, it’s all about the numbers, and how “there’s something for everyone” in a recent Statistics NZ report on income:

A defender of the status quo can point to a 6.2 per cent rise in the average household income from all sources over the year to June 2014. A critic of the status quo can point to a rise of 1.7 per cent in median hourly earnings for wage and salary earners over the same period, or just 0.1 per cent after adjusting for inflation. The year before median hourly earnings had risen 3.5 per cent.

There is an interesting discussion to be had about the way numbers can be used (or manipulated) one way or another depending on the argument you’re pushing. In the run-up to the election, National were trotting out numbers all over the place – more tertiary students than ever before (don’t mention population growth)! Wages the highest they’ve ever been (ignore inflation)!

But there’s something obscene about the way the economic story gets framed: the figures on a page, the points on an index, the number of dollars someone can swap for a number of different-coloured dollars.

I’m sure the following statement will raise sneers; the right love to paint the left as silly ingenues who don’t understand big, serious economics. But I cannot comprehend a worldview which says “all is well, for the numbers tell us so” while families are living in cars, workers are losing their jobs, and children are dying from preventable diseases.

More and more people I know – comparatively well-off people – have being speaking out post-election about setting up automatic payments to charity organisations, or emailing journalists who write stories like the one above to offer direct assistance to the people whose plight makes it into the media. It’s a compassionate response. It does some real good. But it’s also a sign that we have fundamentally failed as a society.

Private charity isn’t even an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. It’s a bandaid over a gaping wound. It can’t even begin to cover the damage caused by the decades-long erosion of our social welfare system. It does nothing to prevent that damage from happening in the first place. The only thing that does is a strong social welfare system, which treats people in need with dignity and respect, instead of suspicion, and is motivated by real success – not the numbers of people the Minister can claim “have moved off benefits”.

When we only talk about economic numbers and measure our success in percentage points and turnover, we erase people. And when we can’t even make sure every person has a home and can feed their kids, those numbers are meaningless, and continuing to use them is a crime.

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