The government’s housing message dilemma

John Key was across the media yesterday, trying to tamp down suggestions the Budget would do anything at all to address the housing “issue” which everyone else in New Zealand has accepted is a crisis. The lines are familiar: there’s no quick fix (so no point doing anything at all), Kiwis are more interested in other things (… which my government has also failed to do anything about.)

Unfortunately, 76% of people and even 61% of National voters don’t think enough is being done to address the fact there are families with newborn children living in cars in Godzone. And the usual lines are ringing more and more hollow.

Watching Key on Breakfast yesterday, it felt like he was honestly surprised at the backlash on housing. At the way his brush-offs and shrugs weren’t met with a jolly laugh and a diversion into What Max Has Been Up To With That New Hair.

But that’s fair enough. Looking at the polls and broad media narrative for the past eight years, we – the embodied Common Sense of Middle New Zealand – have accepted an awful lot of stuff from this government.

We accepted that beneficiaries should be drug tested, and forced into work before their babies are even school aged. We accepted that social housing could be better run by the private sector, and that imposing basic standards on private rentals would hurt landlords too much.

We accepted that it was too difficult to get rid of zero hour contracts – until it wasn’t – and that health and safety shouldn’t apply to “low risk” endeavours like farming – unless worms were involved – and that giving new parents a full 26 weeks paid time with their babies was way too expensive.

We accepted that a surplus was the most important thing a government could deliver, and that there was nothing wrong with the price of housing, especially in Auckland.

For eight (long) years there’s been little mainstream pushback against the ideas that ordinary people deserve near-zero support from their community, and the market must not be meddled with.

But this week John Key has looked up and everyone’s staring at him saying “WTF, mate? People are living in cars? We’re putting them up in motels so their kids can sleep in a bed for once and we’re charging them for the privilege? What the hell is going on and why aren’t you doing anything about it?”

And I don’t think he really knows what to do.

I’m not going over the top to declare The Honeymoon Is Over or try to sell a 1.6% drop in Key’s preferred-PM rating as A Catastrophic Landslide Of Support. I’m definitely biased, and seriously frustrated after eight years of a government which oscillates between do-nothing when people are struggling to feed their families and men-of-action when Saudi billionaires throw temper tantrums.

But the same old lines aren’t working. The discontent is getting mainstream. And John Key may no longer have all the answers.

More meaningless numbers

It’s that time of year when the Government trumpets the success of its welfare reforms. Look! they cry, benefit numbers are down! The repressive, labyrinthine, victim-blaming system works!

I’ve written before about the way National have perfected the art of throwing out context-free figures, knowing they’ll be interpreted as “proof” of something.

It always makes me think of another quote from Pratchett:

“Samuel Vimes dreamed about Clues. He had a jaundiced view of Clues. He instinctively distrusted them. They got in the way. And he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, “Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times,” and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!”

The point is, the only thing you can really say when you find footprints in the flowerbed is that someone stood in the flowerbed.

And the only thing you can really say when the government cries “there are 13,000 fewer people on benefits” is that there are 13,000 fewer people on benefits. You don’t know why, unless they also produce figures on where those people went – how many moved into permanent jobs (and have stayed in them), or emigrated to Australia, or simply vanished from the records?

And you absolutely do not know that “the reductions we’re now seeing will mean fewer people on benefit in the years to come which means we’re going to see healthier, more prosperous households.”

The only basis for that statement is ideology: Anne Tolley thinks benefits are unnecessary handouts which stop people from being ~incentivised~ to feed their children through work, ergo people not being on benefits must mean economic prosperity.

Or at least, that’s the argument she’s peddling.

But because most people outside of the Cabinet are basically good-natured and compassionate, it works: we assume that benefits exist to help people who can’t work, and they stop getting a benefit when they’ve gone into work. And we assume “work” means a good, steady job. So a drop in benefit numbers must be a positive thing!

If we got the real figures – how many people were forced into terrible jobs, only to lose them 89 days in and be placed on a stand-down, or how many people just gave up and turned to begging, or how many people were so bullied and demoralized by WINZ that they’re making themselves sicker by doing work their doctors say is unhealthy for them – we would have a very different idea of the “success” of National’s welfare reforms.

That’s why they pretend that only the numbers matter.

The focus on paid work

We talk about paid work a lot in NZ politics. It’s the cure for any societal ill you care to name: poverty, mental illness, economic growth, domestic violence. But the reality is, many people cannot be in paid work. And  it’s not the be-all and end-all of a person’s life.

I was reminded of this by a recent Captain Awkward post about the anxiety created for people who aren’t in paid employment when faced with the small-talk staple of “so what do you do?” or “where do you work?”

There are some great suggested responses, and also a few ideas for those of us doing the asking – what about saying “what do you do for fun?” or “what keeps you busy?” if you’re looking for something innocuous to talk about?

But there’s a wider political point. The focus on paid employment – especially full-time, permanent work – has a tremendous impact on our attitudes and policies. That’s where you get phrases like “the deserving poor” – because we can’t want to help everyone living in poverty, just the ones who make the grade.

That’s what gets dogwhistled by the phrase “hard-working Kiwis” – it’s not a line used to talk about people who volunteer at local charities or are at home raising children with disabilities. When a politician says “hard-working Kiwis”, they’re inviting you to compare yourself to those other people who don’t work hard (and just want a handout, and spend it all on fags and booze, etc etc).

Paid work is important. But so are the many unpaid forms of work which people do. Raising kids. Volunteering at community organisations which provide vital services for families, victims of crime, migrants. Organising local events and helping maintain our environment. Some of those services probably should be provided by the government; they’re not luxury extras. But for now, they rely on unpaid labour, and a lot of the time it’s actually not feasible for it to be done by people in full-time paid work.

It is possible to talk about helping people into paid work – when it’s feasible for them – and about the importance of secure jobs, good wages and conditions, and job creation. But it’s also possible to do that without implying that people who can’t or don’t work are less worthy of dignity and self-respect.

Repost: Life isn’t fair. But it should be.

(Originally posted at On The Left.)

I was not an angelic child.

My mother has retconned her memory of my early years since I became an adult, and my grandmother delicately phrases it as “you were a little troubled”. The truth is I was a terror. When I thought something wasn’t fair, you heard about it. And when I was told “well life isn’t fair, Stephanie” it only made things worse. And louder.

These days, I blog.

It may be that Mum and Grandma only have themselves to blame. They raised me with far too strong a sense of justice, which revolted at any suggestion of accepting unfairness as an immutable fact.

Well before I could put it as eloquently as I hope I’m doing now, I knew it wasn’t good enough to say “that’s just the way things are” or “life isn’t fair”. If something was wrong, it was wrong, and importantly, it didn’t have to stay that way.

All the issues which resonate with me today – like workers’ rights, reproductive justice, poverty – are issues of justice and fairness. Because it isn’t just that workers be expected to exchange their labour for inadequate wages, and it isn’t just that people, predominantly women, are denied the right to choose whether they have children or not and under what circumstances, and it isn’t just that children go to school with empty lunchboxes while the CEO of ANZ gets paid $11,000 per day.

Those things simply are not fair. And I didn’t – and I don’t – care if life isn’t fair.

The structure of our society, the relationships we have with other people, and universal experiences we all go through – none of these things are set in stone, however long we’ve lived with them or how ingrained they are in our psyches.

So that was where I started, with a strong sense of justice and a belief that things can and should change.

That only got worse once I figured out the next step: those unfair structures aren’t accidental. The fact that they reinforce the power of the powerful and keep the oppressed oppressed certainly isn’t.

We live in a world designed so the powerful can maintain their power. And this is unjust.

This is the major reason why I’ve always been confused by the inherent conflict some people on the left see between “class politics” and “identity politics” (the second reason is because I think there’s a good case to be made that class itself is an “identity”, especially in the 21st century.) In the frame of justice, in the context of power structures conspiring to keep the majority down so the minority prosper in extravagance, we are all the same in the eyes of the powers that be. The only difference is that some of us are denied the fruits of our labour, and some of us are denied bodily autonomy (and get even less of the fruits of our labour), and many, many of us are kept hungry and desperate and alienated – far too preoccupied with the necessities of life to give a damn about deeper questions of political philosophy.

(There’s also the issue of intersectionality, i.e. the way the different oppressions and power structures of our society combine/multiply/reinforce themselves against many people.)

At the core, the oppressed are united in their oppression. It just takes different forms (and some of those forms are much worse than others.)

Of course reality is much more complex. The sad reality is that many people who are staunch activists on one axis of oppression can be pretty terrible on another (misogynist leftwing men, my god, you’re a problem.) And as someone who’s relatively privileged myself – Pākehā, cis, hetero, upper-middle-class, university-educated, currently able-bodied – it’s very easy for me to say “we’re all in this together”. So I’m not saying that. A lot of people have very good reasons not to throw their lot in with activists like me.

What I am saying is this: I’m on the Left because I do believe in justice. I know we can fight for it. I know life will always have its ups and downs. But by god, it should be fair.

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.