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In two earlier posts (Child poverty must end, 8/5/15 and More child poverty stories, 25/5/15) I examined five of the myths about poverty that are used to avoid dealing with it. They are the “deserved poverty”, “bracing poverty”, “relative poverty”, “poverty-by-choice” and “shut-up-and-be-grateful” myths. In this post I am looking at a sixth, the “confusion-of-definition” myth.  A good statement of this myth was an article in the Herald in January to the effect that there is no poverty in New Zealand because the definitions used are inaccurate and confused.

One source of confusion has been the distinction between relative and absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is in this classification supposedly the absence of the necessities of life. Logically, though, without the necessities of life a person would be dead. This of course begs the question as to what are necessities but defining necessities, other than as those things needed to sustain life, just gets us back to where we started in defining what is poverty. All poverty is relative and how we define it depends on what we regard as necessary for a decent existence rather than for survival.

Another source of confusion is comparison of poverty between countries. In casual discussion it is said there is no poverty in New Zealand because there are no slums like we see in Mumbai or no pot-bellied, matchstick-limbed children such as we see in appeals for overseas aid. This distinction may make sense in considering how entrenched poverty is but it makes no sense at all at the level of the individual.  It is futile to suggest a child in New Zealand who suffers ill-health and an increased risk of suffering and death from respiratory disease or rheumatic fever because of material deprivation is worse off or better off than someone similarly placed in another country. The malnutrition of poverty has different faces. One is wasting from inadequate total food intake. Another, more commonly seen in this country, is the obesity from an intake of cheap foods with little nutritional value,.

A third point of obfuscation is a misrepresentation of current accepted definitions as somehow provisional and made-up. The internationally-accepted definition of income poverty has been around for many years. It is, “less than 60% of the median household income net of housing costs and adjusted for household make-up.” For some purposes the cut-off is 50%. There is, in addition, an internationally accepted definition of deprivation which is, “a state of observable and demonstrable disadvantage relative to the local community or the wider society or nations to which an individual, family or group belongs.”[2]

Measurement of “a state of observable and demonstrable disadvantage” in New Zealand has been carried out in the well-tested and well-accepted NZDep series beginning in 1996[3] and in similarly well-founded surveys by the Centre for Social Research and Evaluation of the Ministry of Social Development in 2001 and 2004.[4] Both of these have produced an index of deprivation or hardship using a set of real-life indicators. Examples are whether or not there is warm bedding, postponement of doctor visits, worn out shoes and so on. Essentially the index establishes a standard of living. A state of deprivation is a standard of living that falls below what enables the family to participate in the life of their community.

Surveys using the income and standard-of-living based definitions come up with similar numbers of families living in a state of poverty or deprivation. Those of us in touch with families living in these conditions see how many there are and how it affects them. At Variety, in a three week period at the beginning of the school year we have had over 500 claims for help with back-to-school basics, and have over 250 children on the Kiwi Kid Sponsorship waitlist. And don’t tell us these are not cases of genuine need. We check carefully and find a real hardship story in the people we are able to help which is many fewer than we would like to.   

In the end it doesn’t matter what we call the state of our children and fellow citizens who live in bad housing, eat bad food, suffer from dangerous illnesses and have limited opportunities in life. Arguing about definition is only a way of burying the outstanding fact of their blighted lives. What we should be discussing is what we can and should be doing about it.   


[1] Jeram, J. (2016) Truth on poverty lies amid wealth of statistics. N.Z.Herald, 21/1/16, pA21.

[2][2] Townsend, P. (1987) Deprivation. Journal of Social Policy, 16,02,125-146.

[3] Crampton, P., Salmond, C., Kirkpatrick, R. (2000) Degrees of deprivation in New Zealand: An atlas of socioeconomic difference. Auckland: David Bateman.

[4] Jensen, J., Krishnan, V., Hodgson, R., Sathiyandra, S., Templeton, R., Jones, D., Goldstein-Hawes, R., Beynon, P. (2006) New Zealand living standards 2004. Wellington: Centre for Social Research and Evaluation, Ministry of Social Development.

No real confusion in relation to child poverty

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