A better start or a detour?

by Daphna Whitmore

povertyA big new research project has been launched by the government. Called “A Better Start – E Tipu e Rea“, it is to run for ten years, with $34 million funding to “improve the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life”.

It will focus “on those tamariki most at risk of obesity, learning and mental health problems – those for whom we can make the most difference. These are Māori, Pacific and poorer children, who carry an unfair burden … Māori and Pacific communities are helping to design, execute and interpret our research in a way that is culturally right for them.”

While giving a nod to poverty being a factor, will the researchers get to the heart of the economic system?

Will they tackle the fundamental causes of inequality and consider who creates wealth and who gets it under capitalism? Will they establish why the majority of people earn only modest incomes and why there is a chronic shortage of jobs? In other words, will the research expose the capitalist disparity-creating system?

They say the Better Start project is a new approach. It will be a deep study over a long period of time, and will seek solutions. Sounds good, except we have had similar projects. From 1980 to 1999 Decades of Disparity reports chronicled growing inequality. The two decades of reports provide rich data on New Zealand society.

In 1999 the new Labour-Alliance government launched a “Closing the Gaps” policy.  The following year the Public Health and Disability Act was introduced requiring the health sector to reduce health inequalities. The gaps remain.

In 3 decades Rich Listers’ wealth has soared from $5billion to $60 billion
Poverty remains at much higher levels than 30 years ago

It is likely Better Start will identify substandard housing as a problem.  Will parliament then enact social housing and an end to profiteering and private landlords? Not likely. Maybe they will distribute blankets to people who sleep in garages. Or if they are feeling more generous there will be some more housing subsidies, which will end up in the pockets of landlords.

There are currently more than 100,000 people on the minimum wage of $14.75 an hour. There are another 200,000 people who earn just a little more than that. At the same time a layer of top executives get paid (not earn) millions.  The chief executive of ANZ David Hisco was paid $4.27 million in 2014 and enjoyed a $250 pay increase that year. His hourly pay rate is $2130. Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings is on $4.18 million, and got a whopping $660,000 pay rise in 2014.

Any serious attempt at ending disparity cannot ignore incomes.  Is that up for discussion, or will there be a meek proposal to increase the minimum wage by 50 cents an hour?

Capitalism can only address disparity in a very tokenistic way, even if the researchers are doing their earnest best. There is no doubt the National government does want to do something about disparity, as the Labour government before did. They know inequality leads to unrest, and they want stability because it is good for business. But capitalism is production for profit, not production for the social good. The system serves profit, a gravity-defying substance that does not trickle down.

Labour’s Closing the Gaps fizzled out; now we have Whanau Ora, a project that has yet to show any signs of measurable success.

Some of what passes for ethnic differences is more about economic disparity. Take the relatively high rate of Maori smoking: smoking is a key factor in health disparity between Maori and pakeha. Yet Maori adults living in Auckland’s wealthy north Epsom have about the same likelihood of being a daily smoker as their pakeha neighbours – 8 to 9 per cent.

Smoking and socioeconomic position are strongly correlated, with smoking in poorer communities much more prevelant.

Ross Himona in Draining the Swamp highlights the limitations of policies like Whanau Ora that are ostensibly about ending disparity but don’t address underlying causes. It is worth reading the entire article but here is an excerpt:

The landscape over which this policy saga plays out stretches from the low lying swamp in which the least well off survive, to the distant mountain and the clear air where the rich have their palatial homes. In between the two are the lowland plains where most New Zealanders live and the foothills of increasing height that are the domain of the better off. In the highest of these foothills is the castle called Parliament which houses the levers of power over this whole landscape. It also houses those who have their hands on those levers and are the lords of the landscape but who are by choice (i.e. ideology) also the servants of the mountain dwellers. A few of them are themselves mountain dwellers.

The swamp is where disease is most prevalent; diseases of both body and mind and the diseases of society including chronic poverty and unemployment. There are alligators in the swamp in the form of drugs and alcohol, crime and violence. The alligators not only devour many of the swamp dwellers, they also serve to corral them inside the swamp. On the banks of the swamp are the tents of the well-meaning including the Whanau Ora tent, It is from these tents that intrepid community and social workers, health workers and educators, both state and volunteer, venture into the swamp to work with the swamp dwellers to try to alleviate the condition of their lives and hopefully to bring some individuals and whanau out of the swamp onto the plains.

The statistical evidence clearly indicates that they are fighting a losing battle.

An engineer would approach the challenge of the swamp in an entirely different way. The engineer would drain the swamp and convert it into fertile ground, an extension of the plains.

The lords of the landscape and their mountain dwelling puppet-masters have absolutely no interest in diverting resources to the engineers to apply their expertise to the challenge. Over the last thirty years the resources have been moving in exactly the opposite direction, from the swamp and the plains into the foothills and up the mountain. That has been despite thirty years of assurances that the more resources the mountain dwellers acquire the more will trickle down to the plains and the swamp. Money it seems does not behave at all like the water that falls on the mountain and eventually forms the swamp. The mountain dwellers know that and do whatever it takes to preserve the status quo and the lords of the landscape remain blinded by perverse ideology to the dominant agenda of the mountain folk.

The hill dwellers also benefit from this reverse flow of resources. And it is in these hills that the Maori elites dwell, some of them on the hill they have named the Maori Economy. Somewhat amazingly some on that hill maintain that they too live in the swamp alongside their less fortunate whanaunga.

The challenge for Maori policy makers is first of all to free themselves from the ideology of the Maori elites and then to obtain and divert sufficient resources to the engineers. To do that Maori have to storm the castle called Parliament and get their hands on the levers of power. Maori have actually been storming that castle for decades now and have established footholds on the ramparts. Indeed the Maori Party has accepted an invitation to climb down from the ramparts to dine at the long table in the great dining hall. There they feast with the lords of the landscape and send doggy bags of goodies to the Maori elites and crumbs to the plains and swamp dwellers.

While every measure that helps feed, house and educate a child well is welcome, it is time to stop the delusion that it is a solution. A truly better start involves reorganising society with production to meet needs not production for profit.

The main beneficiaries from the Better Start project will be the researchers who will at least have work for the next ten years as they earnestly look for the best sticking plasters.

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