“Hunger and malnutrition are stalking New Zealand families. Hundreds of thousands are just one shock – whether an illness, or a large bill – from not being able to afford basic food. This is not good enough in our land of plenty.
The Sunday Star Times has an excellent piece on food insecurity in New Zealand:
Back in 1997, the country’s first National Nutrition Survey found almost 30% of our households experienced a degree of food insecurity. Last year, a smaller research project pushed that figure up to 40%.
82% of low income households stated the variety of food they ate was “often” or “sometimes” limited by a lack of money.
That’s a huge number of families, about 600,000, on the knife edge. An accompanying graphic to the article shows the reasons for people turning to foodbanks. Most of them appear to be one-offs or sudden price increases – ‘shocks’ in economic terms. When you’re already on the edge, it doesn’t take much to push you over. And this never-ending recession has brought more and more families to the edge.
Latest figures from the Salvation Army showed a 16% increase in demand across its network of 48 foodbanks last year. Auckland City Mission gave out 7752 food parcels – up from 4500 the year before – with staff estimating that, if current trends hold, 9000 parcels will be distributed this year.
Wellington’s Downtown Community Ministry is also on track for an increase, giving out 1350 food parcels between June and December, compared to 2700 for the entirety of the last financial year.
In Christchurch – partly as a result of job losses post-earthquake – the City Mission distributed 13,140 food parcels – a whopping 52% increase on the year before.
Multi-millionaire John Key doesn’t empathise. When he so famously lived in a state house, his mother would have been getting a generous widow’s benefit and a family benefit for him. His was a middle-class family temporarily down on its luck but able to fall into the pre-Ruthansia social welfare net and it probably with good savings to boot. No fear of malnutrition for young John. No spectre of the shame of having to turn to the foodbank for Mrs Key.
To Key, as with the elite in general, poverty is a moral failing. This was reflected in Key’s comment about people needing to turn to foodbanks – “some make poor choices and they don’t have money left”.
Explaining why some are wealthy and some poor in moral terms justifies the wealth divide – ‘I’m rich because I’m a good person, and those people must be bad because they are poor. Therefore, it’s right that a good person like me prospers and the bad people don’t.’
But sensible people recognise that a level of poverty is built into our economic system (especially under neoliberalism) and it is accident of birth or luck that largely determines where one ends up. As Christchurch City Mission head Michael Gorman puts it:
I consider myself to be very lucky and maybe Mr Key thinks he is as well. I was born into a family who loved me. That’s a good start. They knew how to parent me and could afford that I got regular and good quality food. Because of this I went to school able to take advantage of what education had to offer. I got enough sleep and food so I was able to learn. I was encouraged to learn by my family. I then got qualifications that enabled me to get a job and not just any job, but one that was meaningful. I learnt some social skills and I was lucky enough to remain healthy in both mind and body. I did nothing to deserve such luck. I could have had a family who lacked the skills and knowledge to support me and who lacked the energy and resources to make any change.
“All my advantages allowed me to have a menu of choices. I could choose anything from the very good to the very bad.
“Without my advantages, my only choice may have been between the bad and the awful.”
Anthony Hubbard adds:
Key, moreover, is wide open to the charge that he’s a plutocrat. He is the richest prime minister we’ve ever had. He lives in a mansion and holidays in a luxury pad in Hawaii. He hasn’t been to a foodbank, and his opinions about the people who have, hold little weight. Of course some can’t budget. But most beneficiaries bob along with their heads just above water, and every now and then a big bill sinks them. That, typically, is when they go to the foodbank.
Turning to the politics of poverty and Key’s elitist sentiments, we see that he has made a big mistake in revealing his true face. As the Herald editorial puts it, his comments were “callous, injudiciously plain-spoken or both”.
Remember, the same day that Key was booting those in desperate need of food he was defending the new limos and having a dinner with Julia Gillard cooked by Steve Logan of the exclusive Logan Brown restaurant on the taxpayer’s dime.
He may think of those in poverty as a small, unseen group but actually there are 350,000 people on working age benefits, 500,000 on the pension, 100,000 on the minimum wage, and another 250,000 on near-minimum wages. And that 1.2 million isn’t a static group. Roughly 100,000 people go on and off benefits each year, for example. So, we’re talking about a hell of a lot of people who have very recent or present experience with living on the edge, knowing that, no matter how well they budget, one bad event could force them to the foodbank.
The Herald editorial gets the political risk:
“Being chauffeured in $200,000 cars while people struggle to buy groceries is a bad look.
The same goes for the “poor choices” crack. We’ve all come across beneficiaries whose spending was questionable but the vast majority are trapped in a poverty cycle not of their making and the PM’s dismissive comment was that of a man seriously out of touch.
In making it plain that he won’t stay in politics if he loses the election, Key has displayed an insouciance that may be admirably forthright but is politically risky.
The face he showed to the country this week was that of a man who didn’t give a stuff what people thought. It may be one that his colleagues and National supporters hope he will not be revealing too often.”
In other words, the Right doesn’t have any solutions for those on the edge, and it doesn’t geninuely care about them. But it can recognise a political risk when it sees one. And Key’s honesty has badly undercut ‘Brand Key’, National’s only hope of getting re-elected.