With the government's decision last week to cut pensions and reimpose asset testing for the elderly, this country regressed even further from its social democratic past. And I say "this country" rather than "this Government" intentionally. It is insufficient to lay the blame wholly on the Government. The Government of the day reflects the society it represents.
Rather, this latest attack on the vulnerable in our society is indicative of the mean-spirited self-interest that pervades our whole way of life in New Zealand today. It is indicative of the competitive "dog eat dog" mentality that governs this country's social and economic interactions. And it has been so for the last 15 years or more.
Over this period there has been an unholy scramble for individual self-enrichment, a dispiriting grab for as much wealth as one could possibly obtain in as short a time as possible. This trend has been actively encouraged by successive governments. "Greed is good" has been the catch-cry of our market-led society, championed by the likes of the Business Roundtable. And it has resulted in a growing disparity in wealth in New Zealand and growing levels of poverty, the direct result (in part) of government policies.
Since then, taxes have been cut further by the Tory Government, largely to the benefit of the wealthy. The top tax rate in this country has been slashed from 66% to 33%. Treasury figures show that the top 20% of income earners benefited by more than 500% over the bottom 20% from the successive tax cuts made since 1984. Concurrently, salaries for top management functionaries have soared, while lower incomes have remained static or decreased in real terms. This has resulted in a massive redistribution of this nation's wealth from the lower and middle classes to the upper class, and mostly to the upper echelons of the upper class.
At the same time as the rich in this country were substantially increasing their wealth, benefits were slashed by as much as 20% in some cases. Thousands of families were pushed to, or under, the poverty line. Children went to school hungry or inadequately clothed. Read the papers of the day. They are full of such reports. Food banks sprang up like mushrooms after rain.
By lowering the pegging of pensions from 65% to 60% of the average wage, it is predicted that by the year 2005, single pensioners will be $18 a week worse off than they would otherwise have been, and a married couple $32 a week worse off. It has been further estimated that this could force up to a quarter of pensioners, already struggling to make ends meet, below the poverty line.
The less well-off in our society already live under the debilitating stress of being unable to pay their bills, to feed and clothe their children adequately, to afford health care, school fees etc. They already suffer the indignity of having to rely upon handouts from charities for their sustenance. Are our senior citizens now to suffer the same fate? Are they to spend the last years of their lives under the constant stress of making ends meet rather than living out their lives in security and dignity?
This is a sad indictment on this country. We appear to have degenerated into a nation of individuals, infused with a morality that has no room for compassion, no concern for collective social responsibility, a nation of atomised, self-interested consumers ruled by, and subservient to, the dictates of the market. In short, pathetic caricatures of what human beings are potentially capable of.
'Poverty disgraces no man'. Well and good. But they disgrace the poor man. They do it, and then console him with the little adage . . . But no one may ever make peace with poverty when it falls like a gigantic shadow upon his countrymen and his house. Then he must be alert to every humiliation done to him and so discipline himself that his suffering becomes no longer the downhill road of grief, but the rising path of revolt.
© Kerry Grundy 1998