There Are No Sheep on Our Farms

It’s long since been established that being about as sharp as a sack of potatoes is a useful prerequisite for getting a column in a major daily newspaper, but sometimes a piece gets printed which is just so utterly wrong-headed that you wonder how the author has the faculties to manage everyday life.

Damien Grant doesn’t think child poverty exists in New Zealand.

Grant opens the article by citing the Children’s Commission statistic that 270,000 Kiwi children live in poverty and feigning amazement that he’s never met any of them.  The fact that this might possibly – just maybe – be because corporate liquidators and underprivileged children don’t tend to hang out in the same social circles seems to elude him.  Besides, I’ve never met Damien Grant, but I sadly have to concede that he exists – as much as I might wish he didn’t.

Next he disingenuously contrasts the UN’s figure for extreme poverty – living on less than US$1.25 a day – with the Children’s Commission’s yardstick – parents who earn less than $600 a week, apparently fail to comprehend that of course the global scale of poverty is going to be many times lower than the level of poverty in New Zealand.  It seems strange that someone from a financial background would be unaware of the Cost of Living Index.  It is simply many, many times more expensive to live in New Zealand than, say, Djibouti or Somalia.  If a family could take their $600 a week to one of those countries, they’d be fucking billionaires, relative to the locals.  But they can’t.  They’re in New Zealand, where things just plain cost more.

In addition, Grant believes that the equation the Children’s Commission uses to determine poverty is arbitrary, used to create a problem where there is none, like “a ghost catcher inventing ghosts”.  So let’s take a look at that.  I guess if your parents earned $600 a week and you were an only child, you might be doing OK.  Assuming your parents are really good financial planners. Assuming all members of your family are healthy. Assuming your parents lucked on to a decent, affordable rental property. Assuming your parents don’t have addiction issues. Assuming the car doesn’t break down that week. Yep, if the stars align and everything goes your way, you might be alright if your parents earn $600 a week.

Of course, chuck in a few extra siblings, chuck in a few curveballs – parents with addiction issues, a disability, an elderly parent who needs caring for – and life becomes much trickier.

What Grant notably fails to notice is that the Children’s Commission isn’t saying that all children considered to be in poverty have parents earning $600 a week.  $600 is the top end of the spectrum – meaning there are children out there whose parents earn far less than that.

Next, Grant takes umbrage of the Children’s Commission’s consideration of “material deprivations”, citing “sharing a bedroom with your sister, no internet connection and, shockingly, not having enough friends at your birthday party”.  Well, yeah, sharing a bedroom with your 6-year-old sister when you’re 7 isn’t a big deal, but when you’re 15 and 16… privacy becomes something of a pressing issue. Teenagers need their own space.  And even at 7, while sharing a room with your sister mightn’t be too rough, sharing it with your sister, your two brothers, your parents, your teenage cousin and your dodgy uncle – yeah, that is a problem.

Once the internet might have been considered a luxury, but these days it’s a necessity.  How can children be expected to complete schoolwork and learn if they don’t have the same resources as their peers?  And when they grow up, how are they expected to be employable if they aren’t internet savvy?  It’s a basic skill everyone’s expected to have in the 21st century.

As for birthday parties – take it from someone who was bullied every fucking day of their primary school life: if your parents can only afford for you to invite one or two friends to your birthday party, this can absolutely increase isolation and put a stigma on a kid.

Damien Grant concludes by trying to whack us between our eyes and shock us by saying he’d rather have a new mobile phone than feed a starving African child*. He asserts that there’s no moral basis to help “relatively well-fed” Kiwi kids when children in Africa are starving.  What a funny set of morals Grant has.  I guess there’s no moral basis to do any-damn-thing if you’re not pouring every last cent you earn into helping starving African children – no moral basis not to evade your taxes, no moral basis not to shoplift, no moral basis not to cheat on your monogamous life partner.

A counter to this is, yes, obviously the level of poverty in Africa is terrible, and it’s an utter crime that it occurs in a world as wealthy as ours – but we’ve also got to look after our own house.  And while the famine in the Horn of Africa captures media attention around the world and there are multiple international organisations dedicated to providing aid to African childen, no one is going to look after Kiwi kids except us Kiwis.

But anyway his whole article points to his shocking statement being, oddly, something of a coy red herring.  It’s given away there in the last line: “Perhaps we should abolish the Children’s Commission.”  It turns out that what he really means is he objects to his tax dollars going towards child poverty, that he’d rather pile his tax dollars in the big vault with all his other money than have to contribute to paying for the Children’s Commission.  What’s a voice for hundreds of thousands of children in poverty compared to a few more bucks in his bank account?

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* Of course, we’d all rather have a new mobile phones than feed a hungry child. Otherwise we’d all still be using Nokia bricks and there’d be a fuckload less hungry kids in the world. It’s an uncomfortable truth that we shouldn’t shy away from.

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