The two myths of ‘deserved poverty’ and ‘bracing poverty’ must be replaced by seeing the person, not the stereotype and evoking the human values of community and compassion.
I was young during the hippy era. We have a strange hat that I now wear in the garden that we bought in Kings Road, Chelsea. The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album came out while we were in London.
What has this got to do with child poverty? Well, the Beatles song, “All you need is love” came to mind in the discussions we’ve been having around the present drive to persuade the government in this month’s Budget to begin to eliminate child poverty.
Admirable hippy ideals were compassion, sharing and contempt for materialism. We had our own communes and ohu - remember them? - in which young idealists accepted material poverty and sought spiritual riches. It is not easy to live like that in isolation from the wider materialistic world as the demise of most of the communes of that era has shown. Religious orders do it but secular folk must rely on modern adaptations of the village ways we inherited from our ancestors. Security, prosperity and freedom are still based on the core ideal of community where everyone contributes and nobody goes without.
I know, I know, the genes for self-interest, distrust and conflict are in there somewhere as well. How come the Beatles’ song made millions for them? Must have been an unintended consequence if love was all they needed. Movies like ‘The big chill’ and ‘The barbarian invasions’ also documented the encroachment of reality that ended the sixties dream.
Even so, the ideals of love and compassion and the spirit of community live on at local and national levels. At local level it is these that sustain the food bank programmes, the food-in schools, the neighbourly gesture and numerous large and small schemes by which we help one another. Translated to the New Zealand-wide scene it is the same spirit of compassion and community that will, through the ballot box, lobbying and public discourse, support state policies on public housing, health, employment and income support that are needed to bring child poverty to an and.
So what stands in the way of this happening? Looked at broadly you could say it is the distance that has developed between those with the wherewithal and those in need. It is not so much physical distance as emotional distance. After all, our compassion leads us to give to overseas victims of poverty and of natural disasters. What has happened is that we have somehow come to see the victims of poverty in our midst as not part of our community in need of our help but as a burden or outright bludgers.
A rhetoric has grown up of feckless, idle, shifty beneficiaries endlessly sucking up taxpayer money, the myth of welfare dependency. New Zealanders living in poverty are no longer ‘us’ but ‘them’. There is a higher proportion of Maori among the poor and sometimes racism accompanies the stereotype of the fat, lazy, cunning bludger. Allied to this is the myth of no harm or even benefit from poverty – hardship is good for you, it makes you harden up and incentivises you.
I have said these two images of poverty which you might call ‘deserved poverty’ and ‘bracing poverty’ are myths because that is what the statistics, the research and common experience say they are. It has always surprised me that in a small country like New Zealand we are likely to have people we know, even relatives whose circumstances are poor. We are inclined to say they are down on their luck but we don’t extend that courtesy to those we don’t know. Translated onto the national scene they become, ‘the poor’, the stereotypes.
The reality is that when the social profile of people living in hardship is compared with the rest of the population there is little difference. They are not ‘they’, they are ‘us’. As a group, they do not spend more on alcohol and cigarettes, they are as keen to earn a living as others, they care about their families as much. This is rather surprising, because the stresses and isolation that poverty inflicts might be expected to result in more people resorting to alcohol and nicotine and to be in such despair as to give up seeking work and to vent their anger on their families. Although there is a relatively small tendency in this direction, for the most part it does not apply.
This is not to buy in to romanticising poverty. It is ugly, it is grinding and causes constant anxiety and worry. It is associated with higher rates of illness and death. Against the stereotype, poor people do not appear to be any more or less virtuous than rich people although the cynical might rephrase the ‘poor but honest’ meme as ‘rich but honest’.
If the ‘deserved poverty’ idea is a myth, what about the second idea of ‘bracing poverty’. A common response from people when the poverty issue arises is to say how they have had to struggle at some stage and came out stronger, more determined, smarter etc. or if it hasn't been their personal experience that's what they believe. Many people do overcome hardship with little material help but what isn't widely appreciated is that there is a large number who can't and don't. Poverty is, on average, bad for children. It kills some and leaves some permanently disabled mentally, physically and spiritually. The callous social Darwinists will say, too bad, if they can’t make it they don't deserve to. I'd like to think these are a small minority of New Zealanders.
If the basic problem that keeps many of our fellow-citizens in poverty is one of emotional distancing how can it be overcome? One effective means of re-establishing the connection is to enable the poor to speak since only they can convey the personal reality of their desperate circumstances to a wider audience of people who have never experienced it or forgotten it. One of the best ways this can be done is through documentaries such as Bryan Bruce's ‘Inside child poverty’ which had a powerful impact when shown on television. The two myths of ‘deserved poverty’ and ‘bracing poverty’ must be replaced by seeing the person, not the stereotype and evoking the human values of community and compassion.
In a sense the Beatles were correct. All you need is love, so long as that love manifests itself in careful preparation of legislation, policies and plans at the level of government as well as at the level of the local hands-on person-to-person stitching together of communities.
 The big chill (1983) Director: Lawrence Kasdan
 The barbarian invasions (2003) Director: Denys Arcand
 Stith, S.,et al. (2009) Risk factors in child maltreatment. A meta-analytic review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 13-29.).