A Victim Of Her Own Poor Personal Choices? Why are middle-class New Zealanders so eager to visit the sins of struggling working-class parents upon their innocent children? And why are the comfortable so blind to the social consequences of punishing the poor?
MY NEPHEW is a policeman. For the last two years he’s been part of the beefed-up policing effort in South Auckland. He has his share of “better work stories”, but most of the policing he does is “domestic related”.
When he told me this, I pictured him stepping between angry men and women. That’s certainly a big part of his job, but what shocked me were his stories about children.
“The first thing we do is check to see that the kids are all right. So, it’s: ‘Where’s the fridge?’ No fridge. You’d be amazed how many houses I’ve been in that didn’t have one. So you look for the pantry. Nothing. No food. And there’s five kids in the house.”
My nephew isn’t judgemental. He simply tells me: “It’s a totally different world. People’s expectations are completely different. If you haven’t seen it, you just can’t imagine it.”
Our failure, as a nation, to respond to the reality of poverty, especially as it affects children, is, overwhelmingly, a failure of imagination. There are hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who simply cannot conceive how a family could live without a fridge. How a pantry could be empty of food. How children could be left to go hungry.
Following an item on TV3’s Campbell Live showing the full lunch-boxes of Year 6 pupils at a Decile Ten primary school and the almost total absence of lunch-boxes (and lunches!) among children of the same age at a Decile One school, the letters columns of the daily press were filled with parental indignation.
This wasn’t evidence of child poverty, the letter-writers railed, this was evidence of parental failure and neglect.
The people who take this position aren’t heartless and judgemental right-wingers (as some of my hard-line left-wing brethren have been quick to brand them) they are simply working from a different set of expectations.
It is probable that they have never experienced a prolonged period without money. It’s equally unlikely that they have ever faced weeks or months without enough food to eat or a place to live. The chances are similarly high that they have never been forced to beg a state servant to provide these things for themselves and their family.
If no one you know has ever been penniless, hungry or homeless; if your expectations of an income, a well-stocked refrigerator and a warm and comfortable home have always been met; then it is actually very difficult to attribute the absence of these necessities to anything other than poor personal choices.
And if someone allows their children to depart for school hungry and without a full lunch-box simply because they’ve made poor personal choices, then that person is guilty of neglecting – even abusing – his or her children and deserves to be punished severely.
This is clearly the thinking behind the present government’s welfare reforms. Poor personal choices are being tackled head-on. Any repeated failure on the part of a welfare beneficiary to meet a very basic set of social and familial expectations is going to be punished – hard.
But self-righteous retribution is a poor substitute for empathic imagination. It does, however, allow us to kid ourselves that we’ve answered the biggest question arising out of the poverty debate: How does this happen? Once we’ve decided that poverty is the result of poor personal choices, then the search for evidence can cease. We all know the causes: time to concentrate on the remedies.
But we don’t know the causes – not really. We don’t like to think about the expectations that poverty hard-wires into children, or of its effects on the people attempting to raise them. We don’t factor in the consequences of domestic violence on childhood development, or the impact of poor nutrition and the diseases of poverty on the little human-beings growing up in houses without fridges, where the cold and damp weakens immune systems. We don’t grasp the effect on a child’s education of always being hungry, or having to move house every few months. We can’t imagine what it’s like: always being a stranger in the classroom; an outsider in the playground. We don’t think about the sort of person a child like that grows into.
Are these really “poor personal choices”? Did these children ask to be born into poverty? And do we ever stop to think what sort of people (with what sort of expectations and addictions) they will grow into? Because children do not remain children forever. As the sapling is bent, so grows the tree.
Only a handful of us: schoolteachers, nurses, doctors and, yes, policemen, move freely between the two nations that New Zealand now encompasses. If only our hearts and minds would open as wide as our eyes when we learn what they have seen in the nation of the poor.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 September 2012.