Offensive

Yesterday, Judith Collins said the problem is not child poverty, it is “a poverty of ideas, a poverty of parental responsibility, a poverty of love, a poverty of caring.”

Today, in a follow up statement to the media following yesterday’s comments, Judith Collins said “when the inference is made to me that crime is crime because of child poverty, that is totally unfair to kids and to families who don’t have a lot of money.”

A month ago, in Parliament, Anne Tolley said “I find it offensive that the Opposition is suggesting that just because you are poor you beat your children.”

There’s a certain similarity between these statements. Let’s break it down:

  1. It gives those opposed to further cash transfers a perverse moral high-ground as champions of the parenting powers of the poor.
  2. It puts those in favour of alleviating poverty in twist. We don’t want to be labelling income-deprived parents as child abusers or as raising future criminals. But, on the other hand, one rationale for alleviating poverty is because doing so can prevent associated bad outcomes! And the data is mixed. It is complicated to disentangle the effects of poverty.
  3. It appeals to people who have no idea how bad poverty levels are in this country. It rests on an image of poverty as a family that gets by OK, so long as they’re careful with money. The image of a family who eats budget brand bread and buys second-hand school uniforms but can still afford to heat the house properly and pay the power bill every month. That’s not a current image of poverty, and it hasn’t been for a long long time. The current image of poverty is kids with rheumatic fever because their houses are never ever warm or dry.
  4. In co-opting the moral high-ground, it prevents the left from picking up the rhetoric of the government’s preferred “investment approach” to solving social problems. Spend more money early on to address poverty, it will solve all these things! Fiscal responsibility! Yay us! What, how dare you suggest those problems are linked to poverty? Aren’t you meant to be on the side of the poor, not blaming them for their derelict children?! You’re just an elitist patronising latte drinking bourgeois tosspot aren’t you?
  5. It frames the conversation around blame and personal moral obligation (i.e. parents whose kids grow up to be criminals have only themselves to blame. There is no societal obligation to all children.)
  6. It removes the impetus for change by suggesting that good parenting can counteract the effects of poverty.
  7. It sets up the whole deserving poor / undeserving poor dichotomy, where we can disparage one group of society endlessly and wash our hands of doing anything about it because *shrug, they should spend money better*.
  8. It means that the conversation is no longer about what the government can do, but what the government should do. Classic distraction.
  9. Finally, because I happened to do a lot of research on this many years ago, there is an important way child poverty is linked to adult crime and it’s an area which is of major concern in New Zealand. Poverty, and specifically a lack of financial support for single parents, makes it much harder for primary caregivers to leave an abusive relationship. When studying the effects of childhood economic deprivation on adult outcomes, it is common to adjust for exposure to relationship violence. Which means that this particular interplay – while obvious as soon as its pointed out – isn’t always at the forefront of our minds when considering the effects of childhood poverty and the linkages between economic deprivation, abuse, and criminality. Or at least, it’s clearly not at the forefront of the minds of those two Ministers.
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