Costly government

I wrote yesterday about our heartless, penny-pinching government, which emphasises Getting To Surplus at all costs even if that means kids dying in cold state houses.

This is the true irony of National governments. Their entire platform is one of “fiscal responsibility” and “good economic management” yet time and time again they spend money the way I did when I was a teenager: false economies and short-term wish fulfilment which meant at the end of the week I was calling home collect and begging for rides which cost our household a lot more than if I’d just made sure I had enough money for the bus.

Fifteen-year-old-me was pretty stellar at externalising the losses, but I don’t think anyone, especially my parents or me, would relish the idea of her running the country.

National are, on the surface, all about cracking down on unnecessary spending and bureaucratic bloat, delivering value for money, getting proper returns on investment.

And yet, they don’t save us money.

A 2013 report of the National Health Committee on respiratory diseases puts the cost of lower respiratory tract infections like pneumonia at:

The average length of stay was about 3.5 days and the average price per hospitalised individual was $4,700.

According to the coroner’s report, Emma-Lita Bourne was admitted to hospital on 6 August and died on 8 August. Three days; and probably higher than average costs given the complications she suffered.

Making sure her family could afford to heat their home and throw some carpet on the floor wouldn’t have cost $5,000 – and could not only have saved her life in 2014 but prevented any number of future illnesses for her and her siblings.

A 2014 report from UNICEF states:

Every year, taxpayers face a bill of $6-8 billion for additional health needs, remedial education and reduced productivity that result from 260,000 children living in poverty.  This cost is largely due to the fact that children most likely to be in poverty are very young, when the most important physical, mental and social development is occurring.  Furthermore, a large group of children live in poverty for a long time – 7 years – and about ten per cent of Kiwi Kids live in severe poverty.

Six to eight billion. What was the estimated cost of Hone Harawira’s Feed the Kids bill again? $100 million. Estimated cost of Sue Moroney’s extension to paid parental leave? $276 million over three years. Drops in a bucket.

The Greens-initiated housing insulation policy had, as of May 2012, cost $347 million and returned estimated benefits – in reduced healthcare costs – of $1.68 billion. That’s some good fiscal management right there.

And as the fabulous Dr Liz Craig put it a couple of years ago:

… a housing warrant of fitness could improve the condition of rental properties, and although it could increase rents, at the moment all taxpayers are covering the costs of substandard housing through the health system and it’s a conversation the country needs to have.

Emphasis mine.

It’s almost like the radical notion that prevention is better than cure stacks up – ethically and financially. Maybe not on a single year’s balance sheet; but when we’re talking about caring for people from cradle to grave, a single year’s balance sheet is irrelevant.

So if National were truly interested in efficiencies and return on investment – instead of just using those buzzwords to sell their latest erosion of the public service – every state house would be warm and dry. Every kid would get breakfast and lunch. Every parent could give their kids the best start in life with mum or dad at home for those crucial early months.

Sometimes people on the left object to putting things in monetary terms – when the Public Service Association put the cost of domestic violence to business in numbers ($368 million a year) there was criticism: surely we’re motivated to stop domestic violence because it’s a bad thing which should never happen to anyone!

They’re right. They’re also wrong. This is a heartless government. They don’t do things “just because” it’s the right thing to do. Their focus is always on the money: they balance the books, they do the practical stuff, not the wasteful airy-fairy lefty stuff.

So we must, and can, argue this on both fronts. Of course every Kiwi kid should get breakfast and lunch because food is a fundamental part of being healthy and happy. But it’s also not just feelgood. It saves a huge amount of money in the long run, in education, in healthcare, in law enforcement.

It doesn’t mean we accept the frame that everything is about money. We just show very clearly how doing the right thing morally also means doing the right thing financially. The National Party isn’t selling our soul to save dollars; it’s selling our soul and costing us money at the same time.

That can’t be anyone’s definition of “good government.”

Campbell Live on poverty and school lunches

We said farewell to Campbell Live last week, and from tonight TV3 is delighting our screens with Road Cops in its place, presumably until their shiny new co-hosted totally-what-the-audience-wants current affairs show is ready to launch.

While Road Cops may involve some really gripping, in-depth reportage, I thought I’d head over to TV3’s website, where – for the time being, at least – you can still watch John and the team doing what they did best.

Here’s to you, Campbell Live, and here’s to your heartbreaking story about poverty and kids’ school lunchboxes.

Lunchbox differences in decile 1 and decile 10 schools

Childhood poverty increases the risk of poor health, poor educational achievement, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, criminality and so on.

Addressing it would not only enrich the lives of the children concerned, it would reduce the money we’re spending responding to those issues.

To illustrate the impact of child poverty, we’ve conducted a simple experiment.

Without any advance notice, we asked kids in a decile 10 school, and a decile one school, to show us what they’re having for lunch.

See the full video here.

On poverty, parenting, and Paula

Of course it would be Paula Bennett, the government’s most infamous ladder-retracting Minister, getting headlines about irresponsible parenting being the real cause of children going to school with no lunches.

“[Voting down the “Feed the Kids” Bill] is absolutely is the right thing to do. We provide breakfast into any school that wants it and this is being taken up which is great, but we believe in parental responsibility and I stand by the decision we made,” Bennett says.

This despite OECD figures showing that 17% of respondents report that they do not have money to buy sufficient food.

The average household income in 2014 was $42,600. And remember the statisticians’ (or rather, politicians’) trick: that’s a mean average. It gets dragged up by all those comfortable MP pay raises and CEOs on millions of dollars per year.

The average income for the bottom 10% of households? $13,200. There’s no hiding from reality: for many people, there simply isn’t enough money to cover expenses.

But the National Party has always hid behind a faux moral outrage on child poverty: “Parental responsibility!” they cry. “Make better choices!” they plead. “Stop breeding for a business!” they sneer. As though even Paula Bennett – or John Key, whose state house upbringing is so often used to lend him “just like normal people!” cred – have any understanding of what it’s like struggling to make ends meet in a post-GFC world.

To the bulk of people – comfortably well-off people who like to consider themselves to be the real battlers, but don’t really appreciate how little some people are “getting by” on – those seem like fair comments. After all, they think (and I could think too, given a completely different set of values) I’m not that wealthy; I have to make budgeting decisions sometimes; I could certainly afford to spend less on luxuries. Therefore, all those people who are complaining must just be choosing the wrong things!

Yet, the average income for the bottom 10% of households is $13,200. Even the mean household income – that one dragged upwards by the cushy pay rises of senior managers – is only $42,600. That’s not a lot to pay the rent, and the bills, and cover transport, and put food on the table.

It’s often very difficult to see just how much our own lives aren’t really “normal” or representative of the lives of others.

I don’t know what the answer is to getting people to understand that. So for now I’ll settle for calling out Paula Bennett and her government’s rhetoric as heartless bullshit, designed to dehumanize and vilify poor people so no one asks questions about why we’re pursuing nasty and ultimately-disastrous policies to benefit the people at the top and grind the people at the bottom into the dirt.