Written By: - Date published: 10:24 am, June 11th, 2018 - 48 comments
Categories: benefits, capitalism, child welfare, class, class war, food, welfare - Tags: charity, child poverty, food banks, food insecurity, health, poverty, tory charity
The 1991 “Mother of All Budgets” led to welfare reforms that are responsible for Aotearoa New Zealand’s growing poverty and inequality. The reverberations of those reforms are reflected in our current negative statistics and the numbers of families living in hardship.
That hardship began during Labour’s reforms of the 1980’s, escalating in 1991, when the National government slashed welfare benefits. These cuts averaged a loss of $27 per week per beneficiary. While that figure may seem minuscule in today’s terms, back then it was a significant portion of one’s food budget but the real value escalates when one factors in other living cost variables (see this inflation calculator to compare). Graham Riches provides a good analysis of the rationale and consequences of those welfare cuts.
When deciding the new benefit rate in 1991, the government relied on the Otago University Department of Human Nutrition Food Cost Survey to set benefit rates. However, when using the Food Cost Survey, the economists did not inform the Otago researchers why they wanted the information, which would have altered the information they provided to the government (for reason outlined in the above link). Not only did the economists take the lowest food budget costings (which could not be sustained over a longer period, and was not adequate to provide a nutritionally viable diet), they then slashed the amount by 20 percent to set the baseline amount for people receiving welfare benefits.
Those benefit cuts were set at a rate that ensured that beneficiaries could not sustain a healthy diet and led to a flourishing food bank industry. An industry which some writers argue not only entrenches food poverty/food insecurity but also creates co-dependency between food banks and food bank users.
New Zealand’s growing poverty and inequality (see Rashbrooke 2013 for example), means more and more people live with the effects of significant food insecurity and are reliant on food banks to survive and those numbers are increasing year in and year out according to stats coming from some of New Zealand’s major food banks. Those most affected are beneficiaries, women, children, Maori and Pasifika families.
With a large number of families now reliant on food banks to survive, it is concerning that food bank parcels do not guarantee a nutritious or adequate diet for families (both in terms of quality and quantity). This has been noted in studies both overseas and in New Zealand, showing families often received nutritionally inadequate food from food banks.
There is considerable evidence available showing the impact that poor diet has on people’s physical and mental health. Some of these health issues include chronic health conditions, cancer, heart disease, obesity (this contradiction is explained here), depression and suicide. For children, the picture is very grim indeed, with impacts including, behavioural problems, poor learning outcomes as well as a myriad of health issues all of which have negative long term consequences.
Given what is generally known about nutrition and health, it is not surprising that the now regular use of food banks, on top of inadequate financial support over the long term is compromising people’s health. In fact, those people, unable to access adequate nutrition over the long term, are slowly but surely dying before they ought to.
There is no doubt in my mind that food insecurity in New Zealand is a direct result of the earlier mentioned economic and welfare reforms and those reformists knowingly cut benefit rates to a level that they knew could not adequately sustain anyone reliant on welfare benefits. Successive governments (supposedly on opposites sides of the political spectrum), have done very little to alleviate the plight of New Zealand’s poorest families. Given what we know about the link between those reforms, poor diet and health outcomes, I do not think it is unreasonable to accuse those Governments of deliberate but surrepticious genocide of the poor.
Meanwhile, we have a flourishing and expanding food bank industry, no doubt trying their best to alleviate the worst impacts of poverty, but making no apparent difference in changing the systemic causes of the problems they see day in and day out. It is unfortunate that through their kindness they may even be responsible for entrenching food bank use and devolving the government of its responsibilities to our most vulnerable citizens. Sadly, while the food bank may be alleviating the worst effects of food insecurity, they may, through their kindness, also be complicit in supporting a system that is slowly killing people living in poverty.