Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 20/08/2014

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Setting the Scene | The Problem of Poverty



How we understand, define, and measure poverty matters. Poverty, especially in developed countries like New Zealand, is complex and in many ways subjective— difficult to define exactly, even harder to measure, and seemingly impossible to solve. But at the same time, poverty remains at the centre of debate and discussion amongst academics, politicians, lobbyists and everyday Kiwis. In 2013 alone, over a dozen reports with a focus on poverty were released,[1] and child poverty is set to be an influential issue in the upcoming election. The current Government has set up a Ministerial Committee on Poverty, which is focussed on “getting results from the billions of dollars it spends on a wide range of social services.”[2] Indeed, a third of total government spending is on social security and welfare, over two-thirds if we include health and education.[3] While the fact that we spend $47 billion on social policy in a year indicates we care, it tells us little about results: whether that care is transformed into policy that in turn transforms lives. Passion needs to be matched with precision.

This issues paper seeks to stimulate and inform the debate about poverty in modern New Zealand. Specifically, it explores the underlying concepts, definitions and measurements that inform not only our thinking about poverty but how we tackle it. As we will see, people come to their understandings of poverty via many and varied routes. The purpose of this paper is not to find some objective answer to which of these routes is correct, but rather to lay bare the assumptions we all carry so that we may begin to have more meaningful discussions about what poverty is and what we should be doing about it.[4]

Standing defiantly in the way of a clearer understanding of the nature, extent and causes of poverty and the life-transforming solutions best suited to combat it is an underwhelming, simplistic public discourse. In New Zealand our knowledge of poverty is profoundly shaped by what we hear echoing in parliamentary chambers, read printed on newspaper pages and see on the TV screen. Some lament the injustice of hearing that one-in- four Kiwi children are in poverty, while others contest that poverty exists at all in New Zealand. Some despair that families are living in cold and damp garages; others are incensed at reports of beneficiaries abusing the system.

We must not simply become passionate about the abstract “issue of poverty” while losing sight of the people we care about deeply who struggle in life: our families, friends, and fellow New Zealanders.

The problem with these voices and perspectives is that they are riddled with caricatures and distortions that often obscure more than they illuminate the complex reality of what poverty looks like in New Zealand. It’s important that when we talk of poverty we don’t just concentrate on headline numbers, theoretical abstractions or one- dimensional stories, but rather on the lives of real people and doing our best to help them flourish. We must not simply become passionate about the abstract “issue of poverty” while losing sight of the people we care about deeply who—for a time or from time to time—struggle in life: our families, friends, and fellow New Zealanders.

Because at its heart poverty is about people suffering unacceptable hardship,[5] it has both moral and political dimensions. It is a moral issue as it isn’t just a description of how things are, but a call to action to fix it—or at the very least to make things better than they are. Poverty is an inherently political concept too, for while it is generally agreed to be an intolerable state of affairs that needs to be fixed, this is where the common ground ends. The vast, contested political territory begins where different understandings of poverty and solutions to combat it—informed by a mix of rational arguments, scientific evidence, and philosophical assumptions—clash. There are significant implications to how we as a nation think about poverty.


New Zealand has no “official” poverty definition or line. Over the years, non-government organisations and academics have gone a long way towards resolving this. Non-government groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group, New Zealand Council for Christian Social Services and the Salvation Army have made helpful contributions (too numerous to mention) to poverty discourse in New Zealand.[6] First-hand experience of how poverty actually blights the lives of New Zealanders has helped ground a debate that has a tendency to descend into a “semantic and statistical squabble.”[7] Non-official responses to official reports and working groups have also been influential. The Welfare Working Group, appointed by the Government in 2010, sought submissions and made recommendations about reducing long-term welfare dependence. Bristled by these limited terms of reference, the Alternative Welfare Working Group outlined other more comprehensive ways of understanding and tackling poverty.[8] More recently in 2012, the Children’s Commissioners’ Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty outlined 78 recommendations to deal with child poverty in New Zealand. While not as developed as the international literature, New Zealand scholars have also made significant contributions to both official and non-official discussions on poverty—particularly with respect to measurement—since the 1970s.[9]

This is an extract from Kieran’s research series “The Heart of Poverty | Matching Passion with Precision for Struggling New Zealanders” Issues Paper. (Released 2014) 




[1] Major reports were released from: The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG); UNICEF; Salvation Army; Office of the Children’s Commissioner; Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty; Families Commission; Ministry of Social Development (MSD); and New Zealand Treasury.
[2] Ministerial Committee on Poverty, Ministerial Poverty Committee making progress, progress (accessed 18 December 2013).
[3] Treasury (2013), Core Crown Expenses for 2012, (accessed 12 March 2014)
[4] See Giandomenico Majone Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989) for more on the “argumentative turn” in public policy, where discourse in the public policy is understood more like a legal process than a scientific one.
[5] D. Piachaud, Children and poverty (Poverty research series) (Child Poverty Action Group, 1981). Poverty may not have always been “unacceptable,” however. Gareth Stedman Jones argues that prior to the American and French revolutions poverty was seen as a normal state of affairs in a society. According to Stedman Jones, it wasn’t until Thomas Paine and Condorcet imagined societies without poverty that the moral imperative changed. G. Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty? (London: Profile Books, 2004).
[6] For a discussion of the contribution of the community sector with examples, see M. O’Brien, Poverty, Policy and the State (Policy Press, 2008), 57-8.
[7] M. O’Brien, Poverty, Policy and the State, 43, 57; D. Piachaud, “Problems in the Definition and Measurement of Poverty” Journal of Social Policy 16, no. 2 (1987), 161 cited in R. Lister, Poverty (Polity Press, 2006), 2.
[8] This echoes a similar situation in 1997, where the Department of Social Welfare held a conference called “Beyond dependency,” and an alternative conference was organised by dissenting community groups and academics called “Beyond poverty.” M. O’Brien, Poverty, Policy and the State (Policy Press, 2008), 182.
[9] See, for example, Brian Easton’s influential work in the late 1970s/early 1980: B. Easton, “Poverty in New Zealand: estimates and reflections, Political Science, 28:2 (1976) 127-40; B. Easton, Social Policy and the Welfare State in New Zealand (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1980).

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Kieran Madden

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