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The Budget and Poverty.
By Laura Black in Articles
What This Years Budget Says About Us and Who we are BecomingOn 20 May this year the Government announced a budget which according to most analyses will increase the gap between the rich and the poor, insufficiently insulate those on low incomes from inflation of 6%, and is unlikely to provide more than a 1% lift in Gross Domestic Product (Treasury Figures).
Very soon there will be no "we" with which to write "We have become a nation of individuals, no longer connected in a clear and active humanity simply because we exist; in choosing to look only at what we can buy as the measure of our lives, we look away from those who, by their poverty, make our consumerism possible."
For without the poor there can be no low-wage economy to keep prices down. Without the poor there is no need for barn-style retailers, importing from the cheapest source, competing on price and forever filling the airwaves with invitations to accessorise our lifestyle. And without the poor there is no need to differentiate the "us" from the "them" with displays of our achievement and wealth.
And yet ... We know that the existence of wealth delivers no real meaning or happiness to the lives of those who have it. And we know, and have known for decades, that poverty is self-reinforcing: the socio-economic background a person is born into alone accounts for 65-85% of their future life structure; educational achievement, financial prosperity, and other life outcomes. This is before the educational achievements of the parents, whether the family is stable or separated, and the parents' life outcomes are factored in. At which point the background of your birth is statistically a near total prediction of your future (unless there is considered and careful assistance to change).
The widening gap between the poor and the rich (and our country now has one of the widest gaps in the world) is known to be the source of increasing crime, diminishing health, increased violence to self and others and property, and the raft of social ills that we now, more and more, blame the poor alone for.
More than that, there are many who now look at the poor with their deficit of resources; financial, educational, social, personal; and demand that they improve themselves, often from within the limited resource base that defines their poverty. This is how they must show their responsibility for their circumstances.
Their failure to do this disgusts us. See the poor, unwilling to help themselves, riding for free on the rest of us ... and so we punish them (we call it "incentivising"), by criminalising the crimes that emanate from inequality. A burglar stealing $1,000 from a house is imprisoned for years; an investment banker losing $100,000,000 through fraud and negligence is sentenced to 75 hours of community service and a fine. It is our way of making sure the poor are sure of their responsibilities.
And yet ... Prison is a hardening place, where the lost become found in a world of violence and drugs and gangs. Prison is the proving ground of crime. This too is well established.
So the stories we tell ourselves about wealth and poverty not only lack accuracy, but actively contribute to the society that consumerism promises us escape from. Truly, this is a selfish and short-sighted way to be "nation".
And yet ... we know the pathways that would provide a different experience for all. The salvation of the rich has always lain in freeing the poor, and in viewing life as a journey of meaning not of possessions. Why does New Zealand not walk those roads?
I believe it is the nature of being human and the power of the stories we tell, that contribute most to this failure.
Humans are wired for short-term reward; something that consumerism is tailored to answer, provoking an almost addictive spiral of purchasing high, after-purchase low, purchasing high, after-purchasing low ...
As well, those advocating for social justice have made either theoretical arguments or pulled on the heart strings of the middle classes; we have both bored and fatigued our audience who, forever waiting for things to improve, have grown impatient and uncaring. (And in the process we may also have diminished the humanity of the poor by portraying them as childlike in their need for assistance and protection.)
It is time for those of us active in the pursuit of social justice to make more present and more real the humanity of the poor and the disadvantaged, and draw more tangibly the links between all of us in this nation, in a way that can be experienced and known by those who drive consumerism: the middle classes.
This will require different stories, different ways of telling, and different narrators.
It is time for activists to stop mediating between the wealthy and the poor, and to start cheerleading the collective journey. Its time to bring front and centre that which is common amongst us, the things that bring us together, rather than those that stratify and divide.
It is time to understand that a lack of resources amongst the poor is not the same as a lack of solutions, and to behave accordingly. It is time to provide resources for solutions already known, in relationships of trust and respect, not authority and stricture.
It is time to stop acting like we, the community organisations, are the heroes.
The Methodist Mission
26 May 2010
Also printed as a Connections article in the Parish Church bulletin, June 6, 2010.