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Child poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand - ideological considerations

Ian Hassall

ARTICLE POSTED 26 AUGUST 2014: A contribution to a panel discussion on child poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand with Professor Mike O’Brien and Dr Nikki Turner sponsored by the Anglican Church’s Social Justice Council. Wesley Hall, College of St John the Evangelist, Auckland. 11 July, 2010

The last 25 years

The dominant political ideology of the last 25 years is essentially not just indifferent to social justice but antagonistic toward it as is pronounced by its intellectual founder Friedrich Hayek

“I have come to feel strongly that the greatest service I can still render to my fellow men would be that I could make the speakers and writers among them thoroughly ashamed ever again to employ the term 'social justice'.” (Hayek, 1976)

and suggested by one of its most prominent proponents, Margaret Thatcher.

“And, you know, there is no such thing as society.....There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”      (Thatcher, 1987)

When confronted over the indifference of their creed to the suffering of others, the best the market protagonists have been able come up with was the discredited trickle-down or rising tide theory. We have seen that in practice this theory has no substance in that the measured national prosperity does not necessarily advance and its distribution is not equitable. More plausibly neoliberal theorists assign the relief of poverty to charity and the civil society. The problem with this idea is that the pervasiveness of the market has meant that its influence on the thinking and operation of charities has been considerable and of course the power and willingness of charities to correct the inequalities inherent in a market economy is limited when compared with state policy.

The sole reliance on market price signals to determine who gets what, and how much, is particularly harmful to children who are dependent on the individual and collective social responsibility of adults, independent of any obvious personal advantage to them, for their full development and integration into society. Attempts have been made to bring children into their framework by neoliberal theorists such as Gary Becker but without notable success in my view.

“One could postulate a “taste for own children” which is no less (and no more) profound than postulating a taste for good food or for any other commodity entering utility functions.”

“Fortunately, the demand for own children... need not be postulated but can be derived” (Becker, 1993)

He goes on to explain the wish to have one’s own children in terms of convenience, ownership and control.

The ideology that swept the world in the 1970s and 80s co-opted and distorted what it found in the past that did not agree with it. For example, Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand has been misapplied well beyond the limited set of transactions in the self-regulating market that he postulated.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” (Smith, 1812)

The biblical quotation about the poor being always with us has been misinterpreted to mean there is nothing that can be done for them whereas in context the meaning was quite different. It is Jesus’ response to the disingenuous criticism by Judas of money spent by Martha on providing a comfort for him.

‘For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always’ (The Holy Bible)

The emerging new ideology

John O'Neill, Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at York University Toronto has developed the theme, ‘The missing child in liberal theory' in his study. (O’Neill, 1994). He goes on to propose an alternative framework based on what he calls the civic covenant but his and other similar voices have unfortunately not been widely publicised.

“We must counteract the unethical notion of a duty-free society with a forcible restatement of the claims upon us of reciprocity and covenant care as the vital springs of a sustainable society.” (O’Neill, 1994)

With the widespread disillusion following the financial meltdown of the last two years and its lasting legacy of indebtedness and dangerous political and environmental instability new political ideologies are emerging. They should incorporate social justice if our aim is a more equitable, stable and agreeable society.

The idea of social justice is, however, tainted by its association with a perceived exaggerated sense of entitlement that led to the middle class taxpayer revolt of the latter part of the twentieth century against the welfare state. But if the predominant model of social justice is attention to children's needs, both immediate in their need for nurturing and teaching and long term in their need for a habitable planet the older grievance-driven model need not return.

The selfish ideology that has dominated the behaviour of this generation has not only cast many children into poverty. It has squandered the inheritance of our children’s generation. It is not good enough to say that we have done it not because we are unusually bad but that we have for the first time had the numbers, technology and global reach to do so. The effect is the same. 

It’s time the economics and political philosophies of care propounded by the feminist economists, such as Nancy Folbre (2001), and Marilyn Waring (1999), of sustainability described by the environmentalists, such as George Monbiot (2003), of development and rights put forward by Amartya Sen (1999) and of children developed by John O’Neill (1994) and women and their families by Anne Manne (2010) and Sue Gerhardt (2010) for example were combined into a powerful and persuasive whole whose ideals are responsibility, mutuality and respect for human value and whose engines are those of society’s institutions that are repositories of these ideals.

As human beings we are not best described as consumers and providers. Our world is not best conceived of as a marketplace. Trading for the things we need is, of course, a necessary part of our existence and it should be done efficiently, but for most of us it is a minor part of our lives and so it should be. It is absurd to expect it to lead us into a life worth living.

It will not be easy to bring about the necessary change because the people who benefit or have been persuaded they could benefit from the present ideology are numerous and powerful. They have the media and most of the other institutions of our society on their side. They have already closed ranks after the calamity of the last two years. But there are voices which say this is no way to run a planet and we must add ours to them.   

One thing we must attend to is the language we use. The linguist, George Lakoff  (2006) described the corruption of our language. He traces the use of the terms that have inspired the transformation of our way of life since the enlightenment and finds that in some instances as foreseen by George Orwell they have become headlines and slogans that mean the opposite of the original. Freedom, justice and peace have evolved in this way. Freedom has become the freedom to exploit, justice has become vengeance and peace has become war (to make peace). 

It has not been a subtle process but it has been persistent and effective. When did human need become welfare dependency? We should refuse to use the term. It casts the person with the inadequate income rather than the inadequate income itself as the problem.

One of life’s mysteries is that popular discourse despises welfare recipients as bludgers and treats them in the abstract as an alien species when most of us have relatives or friends who, or ourselves are or have been, in receipt of state assistance. We know these are good people down on their luck. The only reasonable explanation for this cognitive dissonance is that we have fallen victim to the ideological spin we have been relentlessly subjected to for the last 25 years.

It is on these grounds that a few weeks ago I refused an invitation to the forum being run by the government’s Welfare Working Group.

“Thank you for your kind invitation. I'm afraid I have little to contribute to the Working Group. I am inclined to believe Welfare Dependence which the Working Group has been set up to reduce is essentially a shibboleth and the real problem that limits children's development is structural inequality and official inattention to their needs. These issues are canvassed in, for example, (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009; Esping-Andersen, 2002 and Zucchino, 1997) “

In time we might reclaim the word, dependence. It has been contextualised to evoke feelings of pity and contempt. We have been persuaded that the most important thing is to be independent. The independent man whose goal is, by whatever means, to maximise his utility is central to neoliberal theory. Of course, he is a myth.

We are all interdependent. Being dependent is part of the human condition and the condition of every creature on this planet. The delusion of independence is something that afflicts a narrow range of human beings, mostly socially-isolated men in their forties and fifties who have become puffed up with a sense of what they consider to be  their own achievements. They choose to forget the social system, family, colleagues, teachers and so on who enabled them to arrive at where they are.

The reality and beauty of dependence is perhaps at its most obvious in relation to young children. Here there can be no pretence. This is why neoliberal ideology finds it difficult to accommodate children and serves so many of them so badly.

We can do better and we have the necessary instruments. They are not extreme. Take the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that every nation except for the United States has signed up to ((United Nations, 1992)

“Article 27.1 States Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

Article 27.3 States Parties shall in accordance with national conditions and within their means, shall take appropriate measures to assist parent and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing” United Nations, 1992)

New ideologies are emerging and we must strive to put in place one which is humane and forward looking. The default position, if we don’t act is a return to a kind of feudalism in which rapidly depleting resources are captured and held by force by an elite who continue to squander them while large parts of humanity are left in poverty and squalor. Some would say this is already happening.

We can do better. A new economic and political philosophy combines:

  • Feminist care economics
  • Environmental sustainability economics
  • Development as freedom
  • The central place of children and those who care for them

Becker, G. (1991) A treatise on the family. Enlarged edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Esping-Andersen, G. (2002) A child-centred social investment strategy. In Esping-Andersen, G. (Ed.) Why we need a new welfare state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.         

Folbre, N. (2001) The invisible heart: Economics and family values. New York: The New York Press.

Gerhardt, S. (2010) The selfish society: How we all forgot to love one another and made money instead. London: Simon & Schuster.

Hayek, F. (1976) Law, legislation and liberty. Vol 2: The Mirage of social justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Pres.s p97

Lakoff, G. (2006) Whose freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Manne, A. (2010) The question of care. In Manne, R., McKnight, D. (Eds.) Goodbye to all that? On the fall of neoliberalism and the urgency of change. Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda.

Monbiot, G. (2003) The age of consent: A manifesto for a new world order. London: Flamingo.

O’Neill, J. (1994) The missing child in liberal theory.: Towards a covenant theory of family, community, welfare and the civic state. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sen, A., (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, A. (1812) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. London: Ward, Lock & Co.

Thatcher, M. (October 31, 1987) Women's Own magazine.

Guardian (2 July, 2010) UK poor die 10 years earlier than rich

The Holy Bible. The Gospel according to St John, 12:8.

United Nations. (1992) The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child/ He Hui Whakatau it e Mana o te Tamaiti a te Whakakotahitanga o nga Whenua. Wellington: UNICEF & Office of the Commissioner for Children

Wilkinson, R., Pickett, K. (2009) The spirit level. London:Allen Lane

Waring, M. (1999) Counting for nothing: What men value and what women are worth. 2nd Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Zucchino, D. (1997) The myth of the welfare queen. New York: Touchstone.Gerhardt, S. (2010) The selfish society: How we all forgot to love one another and made money instead. London: Simon & Schuster.

Child poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand - ideological considerations

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