OPINION: A few days ago I picked up a hitch-hiker while I was driving to Kaiteriteri.
The chap was carrying a big orange plastic container.
“Oh gee. You ran out of petrol?,” I asked.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “It happens.”
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He went on to explain that his second-hand (or third-hand or more) car has no working petrol gauge.
He and his partner try to keep a check by kilometres driven, but sometimes they get caught out.
I was given one tiny snapshot of what it means not to be able to afford things like a working petrol gauge.
You might think that Statistics New Zealand would rely solely on dry numbers to give us an idea of what poverty in this country looks like, but one of their tools for measurement presents a vivid picture.
Some of the indicators of material hardship include a lack of good shoes, a lack of suitable clothes for special occasions, the inability to give gifts, no home contents insurance, skimping on fresh fruits and vegetables, putting up with feeling cold, putting off doctor’s and dentist’s visits, delaying replacing and repairing appliances, the inability to pay utilities bill, the inability to pay for a car, having to borrow to meet costs and not being able to manage an unexpected $500 expense.
A family with more than six of these indicators is regarded as living with material hardship.
Poverty is defined by income levels lower that 60 per cent of the median income.
By whatever measure, there are thousands of people, including children, who are living in material hardship in Nelson Tasman region.
The proportion of us who fall into this group is predicted to increase soon as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy makes its mark.
If one in 10 of those who want jobs cannot get them, as is predicted, we’ll be a considerably poorer society.
Beneficiaries, children, Māori and Pacific peoples, and sole parents are more likely to experience poverty than other groups.
As in other countries with indigenous populations, the impact of colonisation on poverty continues to hold many in its grip.
Throughout last year, a remarkable effort was made to envision ways of promoting the wellbeing of people in the top of the south.
The Te Tauihu Intergenerational Strategy report took material wellbeing as one of their focuses. Interestingly their framing was “inequality” rather than “poverty”.
This is an important distinction.
Poverty is a condition experienced by a proportion of the population; the rest of us can turn away if we choose. Inequality though, is a relationship, and we’re all involved.
The Te Tauihu group starred manaakitanga (care and support) and mana taurite (equality and inclusiveness) as key values.
The data from multiple studies all over the world make it clear that a great range of social qualities are better in more equal societies: life expectancy, educational attainment, levels of crime, social trust, teen pregnancies, obesity and political corruption.
And they make life better for people at the upper end as well as the lower end of income and wealth.
New Zealand once valued its relative equality of material wellbeing, but from the 1980s has steadily become a more unequal society in both income and wealth.
It now stands as more unequal than many European countries, and less unequal than the USA.
There is a suite of policies, mainly at a national level, that can address these issues.
We can raise income or wealth for those at the lower end, we can tax and redistribute income and wealth from the upper end.
We can increase public services, such as free education and health care.
Free dental care is a much-desired candidate in this policy area, as is housing assistance. (Housing is one of the worst dimensions of material hardship in Nelson Tasman, with its very expensive houses.)
In the upcoming election, we should keep our eye on how the various parties will address inequality and poverty.
Be wary of those who say it will all be done by growing the economy and letting the wealth trickle down.
Forty years of “trickle down” has seen growing inequality. Look for policies that tackle the problem at both ends.
Watch for debates on this vital issue.
*There will be a Forum on Poverty Action in Motueka on Saturday, August 1, 2pm at the Motueka Memorial Hall. Lisa Lawrence, of Motueka Family Service Centre will speak on local perspectives. Marama Davidson, co-Leader of the Green Party, will speak on its Poverty Action Plan.
Joanna Santa Barbara, is a retired physician, and lives in Motueka. She volunteers for the Green Party.