17 May 2013

The Poverty Budget

A remarkable feature of Budget 2013 is its recognition of the existence of poverty in New Zealand. It would be easy to join the critics who say that the Budget does not do enough to tackle poverty. But to do so overlooks the fact that the National-led government has helped to put an end to middle-class denial that poverty exists in New Zealand; and hence they have helped to put poverty on the agenda for the 2014 election debate. The result may be that parties will be competing next year for our approval of who has the best poverty-reduction policy. Whether or not such a debate would motivate more poor citizens to actually vote is, of course, a 'wait and see' question.
Now, the Maori Party is probably not getting enough attention in the media for the pro-poor policies that have been announced in the Budget, such as home 'warrants of fitness' and food in schools. The danger for them, on the other hand, is that they get tarnished for having collaborated in the government that 'did not do enough' for the poor. Being a small support party for any government can be a no-win option sometimes!
Once a conservative government comes out, however, and addresses poverty – an issue that has been swept under the carpet for the last two decades – then it becomes open season on debating this important social question in a much more constructive atmosphere. Line this up with the government's desperate efforts to improve housing supply and affordability, and one can see how these concerns about pressures on disposable incomes merge into middle-class anxieties, and thus cannot be relegated to the 'feckless' or 'idle' poor. Many people may not approve of the government's present policies, but the poor don't vote National, so one shouldn't expect too much right now. Nonetheless, the core political development here is that social policy is back to the foreground and the mainstream of politics in this country. 'What are you doing for the poor?' should become a question that we all use to interrogate all of the political parties before the next election, regardless of our party preferences or our personal wealth.


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