A mania for the state
The number of children in poverty rose by 20,000 last week. Or so it seemed, after it was revealed that income figures were bungled by double-counting the accommodation supplement. The upshot: child poverty under a range of measures is slightly higher than first thought by 2-3%. This had flow-on effects like the Children’s Commissioner and the Salvation Army having to update their reports, much like having to re-calculate a maths problem when forgetting to carry the one at the beginning. These revisions, however, don’t actually change anything materially for those in hardship.
While Treasury and Statistics NZ—independent agencies—were responsible for the statistical mess, Labour and the Greens still nevertheless used the revelation as a stick to whack the Government with. Playing politics with facts and figures is nothing new, however when we are dealing with poverty the risk of our political debate descending into what one academic called “a semantic and statistical squabble that is parasitic, voyeuristic and utterly unconstructive” is high and comes at a great cost.
In this vein, a Green candidate even went to the extent of calling child poverty “an act of wh?nau violence perpetuated by the government.” Vote out the Government and child poverty will be solved—politics will save our kids! Calls like this are as simplistic as they are shrill. They also have a history that goes way back.
One-hundred years ago a Frenchman called Andre Siegfried visited New Zealand to report back to a curious Europe on the customs of a “little English colony…the chosen land of the most daring experiments.” In European countries, Siegfreid noted, it was difficult for government reforms to cut through a powerful web of political, social and economic traditions, institutions and interests spun over centuries.
In contrast, free from the conservative forces of land, rank and wealth, New Zealanders could easily harness the democratic state to get things done, developing in the process what Siegfried called “a perfect mania for appealing to the state.” This meant our forebears would “attack the most delicate questions much as one opens a path through a virgin forest with an axe,” proposing “simple solutions for the most complex problems with an astonishing audacity.”
Sadly, not much has changed. We remain a people captivated by the idea of the state as the simplest fix to all our ills. But delicate questions and complex problems like poverty need solutions that are equally delicate and complex; axes just won’t cut it.
Governments and politicians aren’t the only ones with the responsibility for giving the poor the help they need and deserve. We all have our part to play, but first we must move beyond the misguided desire for external strength and harmful appeals to simplicity inherited from our past.
Indeed, as the Salvation Army Director, Major Campbell Roberts wrote recently, “social outcomes are created by society as a whole: individuals, families, businesses and by communities.” Regardless of the stats, this is where the lasting solutions will begin.