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.
I started Boots Theory on 1 February this year, and since then it’s seen nearly 71 posts (72 now!), 5,000 visitors, and 7,500 pageviews. Not a bad start for a year which got pretty busy offline!
But what really staggered me was finding out that over at The Standard, I somehow managed to post the most-read article of the entire year!
The cost of a bowl of Weet-Bix (reposted at Boots Theory here) took a look at one of those really corrosive memes in NZ politics – the idea that poverty isn’t real because “a bowl of Weet-Bix and milk” is cheap.
The financial breakdown isn’t perfect. Commenters pointed out that I didn’t include some aspects of the Working for Families scheme which beneficiary parents might be able to get, for example. But a big part of the problem of poverty in NZ is how difficult it is for beneficiaries to know, much less get, their full entitlements. Navigating our social welfare system is downright nightmarish for many people, and the fact that WINZ’s website doesn’t even mention you might be entitled to a Family Tax Credit illustrates that.
I also got the tenth-most-read post on The Standard, on Three more years of National in government, and I’m going to give myself half-marks for contributions to the ninth-most-read post, announcing the election of Andrew Little as Labour leader.
On that high note, onwards into 2015!
Three weeks ago I snarked John Key’s sudden desire to take serious action on child poverty.
Now, thanks to Radio New Zealand, we know that not only has Treasury been tailoring its advice to meet National’s prejudices, and not only has National got no real intention of changing the way it’s doing things, but they also really, really don’t want to be honest about it.
Radio New Zealand made the request for copies of the officials’ advice in May last year but the documents were only released early this month after repeated complaints to the Ombudsmen’s Office.
John Key has conceded the Government often delays information releases when it is in its political interests to do so. Delaying the release of this advice appears to confirm the Government is sensitive to debate about child poverty.
Before Mr Key became Prime Minister he talked about a growing underclass in New Zealand and his determination to reverse that trend. Information in the documents suggests the Government is yet to make any real impact on the problem.
Next week the Governor-General delivers the Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament and this will outline the Government’s broad programme for the next three years.
Just what will it say about lifting children out of poverty?
My guess is it’ll be more of the same: the usual right-wing hand-waving about creating jobs and “incentives” to work – which in practice means sitting back and doing nothing except make it harder and harder for people to actually access vital support when there simply aren’t jobs for them to move into.
John Key’s focus groups are telling him people care about inequality, so he has to go through the motions of caring. But he’s already rejected the recommendations of the Expert Advisory Group on poverty and leads a government which is doing its damnedest to drive down wages and kick people off benefits. Expect a lot of big talk and no real action for another three years.