I don’t want to lift children out of poverty

I’ve been thinking more about how we frame our messages this election year, and I’ve realised something pretty significant.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty.

Because poverty isn’t a hole in the ground, which a few errant kids fell into by accident. Why weren’t they watching where they were going? Can’t they just get themselves out again?

Where did that hole even come from? It’s been there forever. Hell, we put up signs to warn people – “Stay in school!” “Don’t do drugs!” “This way to the free CV-writing seminar!”

If some kids are going to be reckless and fall into the poverty hole, why should my taxpayer dollars pay for a rope to get them out?

It’s not my hole. I was smart enough to stay out of it. My parents don’t live anywhere near that hole. Why should stupid kids who jumped in get a free hand up? They’ll just jumping in again, because we haven’t made them face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty, because they’re not in there alone. Of course we don’t really blame them for being in the hole. But their parents? They’re adults. They should have known better. Why on earth were they wandering around a hole, with kids no less?

Some of them even have more children in the hole. We can’t reward that kind of irresponsible behaviour!

What if poverty wasn’t a hole in the ground?

What if we talked about poverty as violence. Not inevitable. Not accidental. A deliberate act, committed by human beings who hurt others for their own gain.

What if we talked about poverty as a scam. Greedy con artists stacking the deck in their own favour and stealing everyone else’s cards.

In either case, it’s a choice they’ve made, to profit and rule by robbig other people of options. Offering nothing but starvation wages and windowless garages to live in.

What if we talked about poverty as a wall. Something built by people – CEOs, rightwing politicians, the 1% – to trap everyone else and deny us freedom to live our lives.

What if we said: those people demolished the things we built together – state housing, social welfare, health, education – and used the rubble to block our path.

What if we said: we’re going to tear that wall down, all of us, together.

(What if we realised there isn’t one wall, there are multiple walls, and some people have more than one standing in their way, and we have a moral duty to destroy every single one of them, not just the ones that affect us personally?)

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty. Because I will not treat the deliberately-created, wilfully-engineered exploitation of other human beings as a natural phenomenon. A blameless boo-boo. An opportunity for abstract debate about whether the role of government is to throw a rope down or tell them to pull themselves out of the mess they got themselves into.

I want us to disarm the people who are hurting children by forcing them and their families to be poor. I want us to expose the fraud. I want us to break down the walls of poverty which have been constructed so a greedy few can hoard the profits of others’ labour.

We cannot offer solutions without naming the problem. But we’ve got it all backwards.

The problem isn’t poverty. It’s greed.

The villains aren’t the stupid people who jumped down the poverty hole. It’s the greedy. The rich. The neoliberal mad scientists who created poverty in a lab and sent it out on a dark and stormy night to menace innocent villagers.

The solution isn’t lifting children out of poverty. It’s tearing poverty down.

The right don’t want to have this conversation. They are very happy for us to keep talking about poverty as an abstract phenomenon. They love how much time we spend trying to nail them down to one specific, simple, objective measurement of poverty. They want us to keep saying poverty is a hole, so they can keep saying that it’s not the government’s job to give people free rope to climb out of it.

So let’s stop playing their game.

The only minimum wage is a living wage

The New Zealand government announced an increase to the minimum wage today – up to $15.75 an hour from 1 April. On Breakfast TV, MP and former tobacco lobbyist Chris Bishop praised the decision as striking a “balance” between the needs of business to pay workers as little as possible and the needs of workers to eat food and pay rent.

Not that he phrased it in quite that way. That might lead people to connect the dots between wages and living. Then we might start asking why we’re expected to accept that a person’s ability to put dinner on the table for their family is something to be “balanced”. Like survival is a nice-to-have.

A wage has to be enough to live on. It’s as simple as that.

If I offered you $20 to do something – carry a parcel somewhere, say – but the trip there and back would cost you $30 in petrol, you wouldn’t do it. It would make no sense. That’s not even considering the amount of time it would take you. You wouldn’t even consider it.

(You’d be much more likely to do it for free, as a favour, to help me out, from a sense of community or empathy – that’s something our economic models and the National Party don’t understand. But as soon as money replaces those social incentives, it’s a very different situation.)

You wouldn’t accept that it was fair or just or even rational to be doing a job for a wage which doesn’t cover your costs. And if I complained, “we need to strike a balance between my costs and your costs” you’d tell me to sod off. If I said, “but if I paid you $50 to do the job instead of $20, I’d go out of business!” you’d say, “You’re not very good at business. Maybe you should take up something different, like beetle racing.”

This is where the rightwingers cry triumph, and say “well obviously, if you don’t like the pay, you get a different job.” They’d say my scenario is actually a perfect market in action – you get to walk away from a terrible economic deal, and I face the consequences of my bad business decisions.

Except that’s not how the world works, and they know it. They’ve made sure of it. By driving down wages, by undermining unions and the power of workers to stand together and demand decent wages, by eroding our social welfare system so that people have literally no alternative but to take the crumbs they’re offered – there is no freedom to choose differently. Take the low wages, accept the terrible conditions, do the unpaid overtime, and don’t even think about complaining or, heaven forfend, wearing a t-shirt with an empowering slogan on it. Even if it’s not enough to pay the bills. Even if you’re not living – you’re just surviving.

The world does not have to be that way. We do not have to accept a heartless marketplace logic which says the value of your work is as low as a stingy employer can make it. We can say what we all know is true: the value of work is not nearly as important as the value of people. And a person’s life is worth more than a company’s profits.

If you cannot pay someone enough for them to live on, you aren’t paying enough. The minimum wage you should be allowed to pay is not determined by invisible market forces or Treasury forecast spreadsheets; it’s determined by human life. We do not work for the economy. We do not have to sacrifice ourselves to its glory.

All wages should be living wages. Or they’re just a dolled-up kind of servitude.

QOTD: Saziah Bashir on playing at poverty

A great read at Pantograph Punch, on the problems with how we talk about poverty.

Poverty doesn’t take breaks on the weekends, or holidays over Christmas, or a week in Bali to escape the winter. Poverty is relentless.  Poverty is a daily humiliation. Poverty makes you especially vulnerable to substance abuse, violence and crime, which in turn keep you locked into that cycle. Poverty is hopelessness. Poverty takes away your agency and your power, and your voice. Poverty instills shame and parades your circumstances for judgment by strangers at dinner table chit-chat and late night talkback radio for those who have never met you. Poverty hangs over your entire life like a dark cloud that stretches to your furthest horizons, casting a dark shadow over every aspect of your personhood. Poverty is also reductive: you may be a complex creature, a full human being with loves and hates and particular tastes and preferences, but firstly you’re poor.

Poverty is not being given credit for carrying on, in the face of all of this, against all odds, in spite of naysayers and without the guarantee of change or liberation or even a platform.

Hat-tip to Morgan Godfery on Twitter.

10 things you could do instead of a sugar tax

It’s sugar tax season again, when leftwing politicians hem and haw about increasing the costs of food they don’t like in order to coerce people to be healthier. Are you excited? I’m excited.

jafar-ecstatic

But I wonder if there’s maybe another way to do things. A way which isn’t punitive, judgemental, or unsubtly sending a message to fat people that their lives are worthless. Maybe it might look something like this.

10 things you could campaign on instead of a sugar tax

Raising wages. Guess what the major obstacle to eating a varied diet high in fruit, vegetables, and tasty protein is? Food costs money! People don’t have much money! Make sure they have more money! Rocket science.

Community gardens, school gardens, and fruit trees on berms. Just put the fresh food out there. Give kids and adults the tools and space to develop skills, provide for themselves, and develop a stronger relationship with where their food comes from.

Good school lunches. Give kids access to a wide range of fresh locally-made food and let them figure out what makes them feel good and full of energy. Bonus: local jobs and opportunities for young/unemployed people to learn skills and contribute to their communities.

Make school sports free. Like, really? I’m not even a parent and I’m hearing about schools charging up to hundreds of dollars, per kid, per team they’re on, per term.

Pools, playgrounds, skate parks, basketball courts. Outside of school, create safe local places for kids and adults to get out and be active.

Raising wages. You know what else makes people reach for convenient pre-packaged highly-processed “junk” foods? Working two or three jobs because they can’t afford to pay the rent, much less be at home every evening to cook a meal from scratch, or go out to the park to play frisbee.

Break up the supermarket duopoly. Two companies control most of our supermarkets, which pushes prices up. Encourage local farmers’ markets especially in urban centres, make it easier for small grocers to get started, crack down on price-fixing and supplier bullying.

Reverse the government’s $1.7 billion cuts to health and then some. Build a health system focused on prevention (of actual diseases, not existence-of-fat-people-itis)

Adopt a Health at Every Size approach. It may sound terrifying, but trufax – when you stop focusing entirely on people’s weight and promote actual physical and mental health, you get happier healthier people. End sizeist policies which exclude fat people from healthcare, and get medical staff looking beyond body size.

RAISING WAGES. Like, seriously. You know what causes a hell of a lot more damage to people’s health than having a fat ass? Stress. Not all the kale in the world is going to save your life if you’re barely sleeping from worry and overwork, never getting any natural light, or constantly fretting about unexpected costs or keeping up appearances despite being skint.

The ironic thing is, many of these policies are already in the political picture. But time and again we get distracted by the policy equivalent of the South Beach Diet- it’s quick! It’s easy! It might damage your health in the long term but you’ll do it anyway because there’s literally nothing worse than being fat!

Our distaste for the huge corporations who sell the packaged/processed/unrecognisable/cheap/nasty food we label as “junk” distracts us from the reality that they are only able to profit because far too many people do not have the luxury of picking and choosing a perfect organic macronutrient-balanced meal plan every week.

I get it. Those guys suck. But ultimately, a sugar tax does nothing but make the cheapest food available more expensive, in an environment where many people cannot make ends meet anyway. Those people won’t find magical quinoa salad under the mattress in the boot of their car if a bag of potato chips costs 50c more.

There are so many other things we can do – so many things that would improve people’s lives without marching into their homes and telling them what’s good for them. A more positive, supportive approach which says people have free will and good hearts, which trusts them to make the right choices for themselves and their whānau. Which is what we’re meant to be about, isn’t it?

Defending social services and fighting the real enemy

A really interesting article on the government’s proposed changes to child protection legislation at Re-Imagining Social Work, looking specifically at the political context and the especially damaging impacts they could have on Māori families:

The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias.

There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling.  Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault.  So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far?  The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.

There’s been some recent comment on the left about the people who work in this environment. And like I said in Don’t despair, I get the temptation to go for the soft targets – in this case, the people who work on the frontlines. It’s easier to swear at the person on the other end of the phone, giving you the bad news about your allowance or demanding more pointless paperwork, than the convoluted system of politicians and processes and decision-making which got you and them here.

But they aren’t formulating these brutal policies, they aren’t deciding where the funding is spent or cut, they aren’t setting the narratives which enable and encourage a punitive culture instead of a supportive one.

In fact, all we do when we attack the public servants at the coalface is play into the government’s hands and make it only easier for them to review, restructure and privatise our important social services into nonexistence.

Again, like I said in that previous post:

We have to remember that a defining part of being on the left and being progressive and believing in social justice is that we have faith in people. We know people are fundamentally good. We know humans are social animals who form communities and friendships and look out for each other, when they’re not being hammered every day with rightwing narratives about bludgers and self-interest and YOUR taxpayer dollars being wasted on those parasites.

I know that the people working in our public services want to do a good job. They want to ensure people get the support they need. Of course they want kids to eat, of course they want families to have homes.

But when this government decides people needing support don’t have consistent case managers who know their background, they deliberately made it harder for people with complex needs to get all their entitlements. When this government chooses to load people up with debt because they need emergency housing and the only thing available is a hotel – because a previous version of this government decided to sell off our state houses – they make it impossible for people to ever get out of a shitty situation. When this government decides to classify solo parents and people with chronic illnesses as “Jobseekers” regardless of their circumstances, they deliberately prop the door open to errors and mishandling and ridiculous amounts of paperwork.

When this government cuts and cuts and cuts and applies “sinking lid” policies to staff numbers even when there’s an economic crisis going on and more people than ever need to access public services, there is only so much the people on the frontline can do. They are working damned hard often for bloody low pay and they’ve got all the worries about rent and the power bill and school “donations” and getting through the week, same as the rest of us.

Let’s focus our anger where it needs to be: on the government which sets the course, and on the rightwing propaganda which justifies it.

~

No apologies for this one – I was a teen of the 90s and a WWE Smackdown fan during the glorious Vicki Guerrero/LayCool era.