We’re fortunate to rent a house with a pellet burner – but, the bag of pellets ran out, and I forgot to get more. We’ve got the oil heater cranked up and bubs is sleeping in so many layers of merino that Mr Daddy says he is an “onion sheep”. It’s so cold! A draft is making its way through the window, despite the thermal curtains we bought in the last Briscoes sale. And all over New Zealand, babies are sleeping in rooms colder than this one.
As a child, I loved reading children’s books that my mother had enjoyed, and imagining her as a little girl doing the same. I always liked the books with tomboy heroes, so naturally Little Women was a leading favourite. One aspect confused me – the March sisters often referred to themselves as being poor, but they didn’t seem poor. I knew what being poor was: it was the kids at school who wore the same ragged track pants all winter and lived in the council flats. The kids with sores on their arms, that just wouldn’t heal.
Well, my mother explained, the Marches aren’t really poor – they’re middle class, they just feel poor compared to Laurie because he’s rich. Middle class people sometimes feel poor, because they don’t have everything rich people have. But it’s different to being really poor. Remember, there is also the scene where the girls give up their breakfast to the destitute German immigrants, who are cold and sick and hungry: “A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.” It was a scene designed to tug at the heart strings.
Policy-wonkese speaks of deprivation versus relative poverty: but let’s cut to the chase, why shouldn’t all children have nice lives? As nice as we can make them, given the resources of the community. Comfortable lives. Opportunities to flourish. It’s not just about whether they ”turn out OK”, that’s a narrow and limited framework. It’s about the conditions for a decent childhood. One of those conditions, perhaps one of the most important conditions, is warm, dry, cosy housing.
I often catch myself in the midst of the March fallacy: we can’t afford it, we’re poor now. Last year we were double-income, no kids; and two middling incomes combined to put us up near the top of the household income ladder. Now we’re smack bang in the middle of that ladder.
When you go from the top to the middle you realise how much money you used to have. Another two or three years and we could have bought a house, done it up, double-glazed the windows. Then you think – wait, what do the really truly wealthy spend their money on? There’s no way, no way, that someone on $175,000 would notice paying an extra $14 each week in tax. It’s just not plausible.
I went to this symposium on inequality last week. It was a surprisingly baby-compatible activity. I sat at the back, and slipped out frequently, but I saw some of the sessions all the way through. It was a bit ivory-tower-ish, all the speakers were white, middle aged, reasonably well-off (inferring from their jobs, largely academics); of nine speakers only two were women. There was mention of low benefit rates, and high housing costs. There was mention of energy poverty. One speaker tossed about some figures: 40% of take-home pay on rent and 9% on power, gas and wood. Families using inefficient oil heaters to keep a baby’s room warm. Well that’s us. And if that’s us, it’s a lot of people. On the same day as the conference, David Farrar suggested that we have an extremely generous welfare state; but with housing and energy costs so very high, and housing quality so very poor, these cash transfers don’t necessarily mean high standards of living.
Tim Hazledine, who always speaks with wit and clarity, discussed the validity (or not) of questioning personal choices – in particular, the issue of having babies before being financially stable. I had a sudden memory of half-listening to Professor Hazledine in an Econ 101 lecture, while having a competition with the guy next to me as to who could make the most paper cranes before the hour was out. I wonder what we’d have thought if someone had told us that nine years later, we’d have a baby. There are socially unacceptable oops babies, and then there are socially acceptable oops babies.
Personal choices, rada rada rada. We’re so accommodating of the choice to sidestep Responsible Adult Life – oh, he’s working in a nightclub in Melbourne, yes, he’s loving it, no plans to get a proper job, having too much fun. Yet so unforgiving of early entry into Responsible Adult Life – oh, yeah well she got pregnant in 7th form, then she had another kid not long after, the younger one is just starting school now, but she hasn’t found a job yet, no skills at all, never really worked, just looked after babies. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything really. We pathologize the actions of the poor, forgetting that the already successful create the preconditions for success. It’s not objective, it’s not neutral. If you can only scrape together 25 hours of work, 45 weeks of the year (for instance, because you’re a port worker in Tauranga), you won’t get the full working for families credits. You don’t count as being “in work” says the government, heaping insult atop of injury. If you have an accident while unemployed, you don’t get ACC for lost income. Conversely, if you own a damp, cold, miserable house you can rent it out, offset maintenance against the tax paid on rental income, and accrue untaxed capital gains, all while your tennants shiver and cough.
“The kids are sick all the time. It is dripping wet. There are gaps in the doors and windows.”
That’s not from a 19th century children’s book. It’s from a newspaper article two weeks ago.