Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas and a prosperous and safe New Year

Spider and I are taking leave - not that it was a busy bloggage year for us. Christmas time is upon us so we're going to put in our Japanese garden over the next few weeks.

Miss Mouse
For those of you thinking about presents for someone who already has plenty of clutter in their lives (ie most of us), we suggest making a donation to one of the many animal rescue organisations that are out there trying to rehome dogs, cats and everything else, and are always overwhelmed at Christmas. There the SPCA, and this 4 Legs Good has links to a couple of rescue organisations for you cat people (if this doesn't make you want to race out and adopt a kitten, check you still have a pulse). In Auckland Passion for Paws is run on an absolute shoestring and is always grateful for donations towards their vet bills. And if you're in the South Island and would like to keep it closer to home Christchurch Bull Breed rescue are hoping for a vet bill-free Chrsitmas, too. 

And if you're thinking of getting a pet for Christmas, please adopt. The SPCA, the Council's animal shelters and the rescues all have dogs and cats that would make someone the perfect pet. If you're thinking of a dog, Miss Mouse is looking for her forever home. We met Miss Mouse last week and she is beautiful, and is the happiest wee girl you'll meet.

We'll be back in 2015 although maybe in a different form or perhaps with a slightly different focus. Things change and while writing the blog has been valuable for me for reasons I won't bore you with, it might be time to have a rethink. We'll see. And since 2015 is only a week and a bit away we'll know soon enough (even I don't know yet).
A very merry Christmas to all, and all the best for 2015 from our little clan.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Winkle: called home by the Lizard People

Winkle came to us as a kitten - really just a pair of eyes on legs. Unusually, he came out of the box he had been transported in, sat on the dining room table, looked around and said "yep, this'll do me." He didn't have to be kept inside for days because he'd obviously decided he didn't want to go anywhere else.

In a fit of madness, I decided he could be trained to sleep in the study rather than on the bed. The first night he banged on the door but eventually stopped. The second night he didn't stop and after some time I gave up and opened the door. He came flying out of the study, sprinted into the bedroom and winkled around the bedhead to make sure that was where he stayed. It was also how he came to get his name. Cat training fail.

It soon became clear Winkle was not a normal cat. He chatted, would try to follow me up to the bus top in the morning, and kept flopping over for tummy rubs. He was also bad at cat stuff: he wasn't interested in hunting, and if he did catch something he would bring it inside while howling proudly, then let it go because he didn't know what to do next. He was much more adept at stalking and dismembering loaves of bread, or pushing the compost bowl off the bench and onto the floor so as to get at desirable scraps.

Where's the milk?
Eventually we realised that he was a fake cat and was most likely a spy from the Lizard Planet. While the Lizard People had got their cat blueprint mostly right, there were definitely some things that had misfired. 

Mostly what misfired was that Winkle liked hanging out in the sun and eating and sleeping and demanding milk and eating...oh wait, I already said that. He used to sit on the windowsill in the morning, and we imagined he was beaming back bogus reports about how he was preparing earth for a ground invasion, but then went and slept in the front yard till dinnertime.

This week it became evident that one thing that had misfired was his upper respiratory tract. He stopped eating and had trouble breathing. He didn't respond to treatment, even after being on a drip at the vet. This morning we made the very painful decision to put him down and buried him in his favourite spot in the front yard. It was time for Winkle to go home to the Lizard People.

Rest in peace my beautiful, mad, mad, beautiful boy. You will be missed more than you could ever have known.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Model work(er)

Under pressure to 'do something' about child poverty, the newly re-elected National government has done, well, nothing, but it has talked up a storm.

A key strategy for the government has been to argue that the gap between benefits and wages must be maintained (23 years after the fact, National still won't admit that its 1991 benefit cuts resulted in massive increases in child poverty) because work, and work alone, is to be the way out of poverty. The 'work first' discourse has a very 19th century, patriarchal tone that echoes the Victorian idea that relief for the disabled and unemployed had to be mean and unpleasant in order to deter the idle poor from shirking.

The moral case for the (self) disciplinary virtues of paid work are commonly an integral part of the case for getting parents - or anyone else who isn't "totally blind or permanently and severely restricted in his or her capacity for work" - into employment. There is little empirical support for such moral claims but they serve the purpose of enabling the blame for people's situation to be sheeted home to their own shortcomings rather than to systematic and deliberate economic violence. All of which brings us to the latest offering in this vein from Messers Russell Wills, Children's Commissioner, and Phil O'Reilly, Chief Executive of Business New Zealand.
Phil O'Reilly has done a reasonable job of sounding concerned about child poverty over the last few years. But Business New Zealand is, for all intents and purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Party, and has provided vocal support for National while it has undermined the ability of New Zealanders to make a decent living through working. How this is compatible with alleviating child poverty is not clear.

As Commissioner for Children, Russell Wills put together the Expert Advisory Group that produced an evidence-based report on how to deal with child poverty in New Zealand. It wasn't perfect, and as with most social policy issues many of the proposals were contested. But this debate is healthy in social policy, and the report and working papers were generally of high quality and made a worthwhile contribution.

So what with Mr Wills being a paediatrician and focused on evidence-based policy, we were startled to read that "parents [ in paid work] have better self-esteem and purpose, and model work as the norm their children aspire to." Better purpose? Who said? Where is the evidence for this? Did the authors ask any sole parents? If they had they might have found there's nothing wrong with beneficiary parents' self-esteem but they get sick of not having enough money to feed their kids, and having to put up with ill-informed statements from the commentariat.

And where is the evidence that children take their parents' 'good' behaviour as a model for their own? How do we know that the children of beneficiary parents do not have their own aspirations? This, gentlemen, is little more than the patriarchal, moralistic fantasy of men who (to steal a phrase from a wonderful friend) are not not at the coalface raising children on a very low income. Further, for the authors to argue that "incomes are too low" when Business New Zealand has been at the forefront of efforts to keep them low is disingenuous. 

Russell WIlls has done a great deal to bring the issue of child poverty to the public's attention. it is a shame he is in danger of unravelling this good work by buying into the 'work is the way out of poverty' myth when their is no evidence that it is, and it fails to acknowledge both a lack of suitable employment for sole parents, and that many parents simply cannot work. Most importantly, it undermines the notion that parenting is work, and hard work at that. I don't doubt Mr WIlls' determination to improve the lives of New Zealand children, but this must be on terms that respect their rights as children, and their whanau's right to care for them. Paid work comes after that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Things that piss me off #5

People who get dogs ("it's a pitbull, man, it'll be a good guard dog") then chain them up to containers with no shelter. And by the way, dipshits at number 7, they're not pitbulls, they're labrador crosses. And yes, I will be calling the SPCA in the morning because few things get on my wick more than highly distressed dogs barking because they've spent the night out in the cold.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Economic indices you can use

Have you ever listened to economics yukspeak and wondered what on earth those bankers and commentators are talking about? Someone tells you GDP has grown X% and New Zealand is enjoying an economic boom yet...your pay packet hasn't gotten any bigger and there's a seemingly endless stream of news reports about families living in cars. You know that somehow your world is changing but GDP, inflation and the trade-weighted exchange rate don't tell you anything about how or, more importantly, why.

As a public service, Spiderandme brings you two economic indices you can relate to - indices that tell you something meaningful about your world. 

Foo-foo dogs
First up: the Foo-Foo Index. When we first lived in our low-income neighbourhood, when it came to dogs the most common sight was young brown guys walking the sorts of dogs that feature here. The young men in question would invariably tell you these dogs were pitbulls, but in fact there are very few actual pitbulls in New Zealand, and most of them were South Auckland Specials. But in Auckland's overheated real estate market, these young men are being priced out of suburbs like ours as the middle classes gradually move south because they, in turn, have been priced out of the inner 'burbs. 

How can we gauge the extent of this gentrification, and its implications for those being forced even further south (to, for example, Pokeno)? The Foo-Foo Index can help. For ages the only foo-foo dogs in the 'hood were a pair of white fluffy things that lived up the road. But in the last couple of years the South Auckland Specials have gradually been replaced by foo-foo dogs. The adventurous new residents have border collies and retrievers and the like. Our SPCA brindle boys are now very much in the minority (it seems the middle classes do not get their dogs from the SPCA). And indeed, the rate of turnover of residents in the neighbourhood has shot up, and the number of houses being tarted up is at some sort of record high. So where do the (mostly) nice young men with their supposed pitbulls go to find rental housing? Yes, yes, we know. They cram into sleepouts and caravans in Takanini.

Then there's the Firecracker Index. In the mid-2000s Guy Fawkes here was horrific. Crackers would start in mid-October (no one out South pays much attention to the sale limit) and they would go through to mid-November then go off again at Christmas and New Year.

Crackers are expensive, and in the illusory economic growth of the 2000s people had cash to squander on them. One of the upsides to the recession of 2009-2010 was that cash was scarce and Guy Fawkes was comparatively quiet.  The last two years have been far busier, with people not only celebrating Guy Fawkes itself, but being able to hoard fireworks for later in the year. But this year, despite our rock-star economy, Guy Fawkes has been quieter again. November the 5th was ghastly but the subsequent Friday and Saturday were not as bad as previous years (but still bad enough). There's just not as much money to throw at them.

In some ways the Foo-Foo Index and the Firecracker Index overlap: as the neighbourhood ages as a result of younger people being forced out and foo-foo dog owners moving in, the number of cretins (and I'm looking at you, across the road neighbour) setting off crackers in the street at 10.30 at night reduces. Indeed, many of the crackers we hear are from across the estuary from the as-yet ungentrified Otara and East Tamaki (except for the ones let off by the over-the-road cretin).

Between them the Foo-Foo Index and the Firecracker Index can give you a guide as to whether your neighbourhood is part of the Great Auckland Real Estate Bubble (and its attendant rates increases) or whether you neighbours are feeling as flush as the business press tells them they are. For those thinking a bit further ahead, they must also raise questions about Auckland's continuing socioeconomic (and ethnic) divide. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Go back to Dipton, Bill

If there was any doubt the mean, shifty Southland farmer that lurks inside Bill English has finally outed itself - like Frankenstein throwing off his civvies at a dinner party to reveal the monster inside - then it has surely come with Mr English's plan to sell off state housing. Not only that, but Mr English has stated the government has no intention of replacing them because there's 'not much point'. So what is the point?

Over at The Daily Blog, Frank Mackasey makes a good case that the point is about National achieving the fiscal surplus upon which it has staked so much political capital. And with the economy looking like it may well head south over the next twelve months, that surplus is looking less achievable all the time. But selling off something in the order of $18 billion of state housing would make that surplus a realistic prospect once again, and it would make National look freakin' awesome. It would even wipe out a good portion of the debt these trusty fiscal managers have managed to run up since coming into office. Whatever 'the point' actually is, you can bet your bottom dollar it has nothing to do with providing affordable housing to low- and middle-income households. Indeed, if the point is to plough the money into the consolidated fund, Mr English is right: there's no point spending it again to help poor people.
Stolen from The Daily Blog

This announcement is truly breathtaking for the sheer scale of contempt it shows Mr English holds for those less well-off than himself. Up here in Auckland there is a housing crisis of ever-growing proportions that National has made no attempt to deal with (no, Bill, zoning regulations are NOT the problem). Social agencies have been reporting for some time now that accommodation for families is almost impossible to find; families and children sleeping in garages and caravans has become normalised; and more families are living in cars and crammed into single rooms in boarding houses.

For families living in state housing, and those already unable to afford market rents (never mind being able to purchase their own home), the sale of state houses will mean their tenuous grip on the housing market disappears altogether. It's true that the houses won't disappear, but in Auckland's overheated property market it is highly unlikely that the houses will get purchased by the current tenants or be sold at a price that is affordable for middle-income families. On the contrary, if Mr English is seeking to maximise the government's return they will get sold to speculators, developers and investors because they are the ones with access to finance.

The sale of state housing won't reduce the total stock of housing but it completely overlooks the fact that the underlying problem is a shortage of housing in the places people want to live. As a government supported by developers and consisting of property owners itself, National well understands that increasing the stock of affordable housing will have downstream impacts on house prices and rents. But it should not need pointing out that in a representative democracy, governments are not installed to attend to the special interests of a few, but to govern in a way that maximises the welfare of all. That includes the low- and medium income families it is increasingly clear this government's Ministers despise. If any equity in housing is to be achieved, the existing stock must be retained and added to.

One of the more remarkable statements from Mr English is that "Housing NZ was too slow to develop new houses in areas such as Tamaki, and had failed its tenants by not helping them to become independent". Independent?? What the hell is he talking about? Mr English explains: "If you are a sickness beneficiary and you get in here [state housing] because you meet various criteria, and you have undiagnosed or untreated depression, no one ever came and knocked on your door and said, 'How are you getting on, maybe you could work now".

WTF? Let's think about this for a millisecond. One: people don't just get into state houses because they are on benefits. Families have to be desperate to even get onto the waiting list to get a state house. So a single sickness beneficiary is not likely to even be in a state house. 2: Mr English obviously sleeps through his Cabinet meetings because there is now no such thing as a Sickness Benefit. 3: If you are on Jobseeker Allowance because you are sick then the chances are your depression has come to the attention of medical professionals and is probably being treated. Depression may or may not be why you are on a Jobseeker Allowance. 4: If your depression is undiagnosed why the hell would anyone think to rock up to your doorstep and ask you how you are getting on? How would anyone even know? 5: Housing New Zealand is not a health or social services agency so why would they ask about whether their tenants are well enough to work? And since Mr English was obviously sleeping through that Cabinet meeting as well, we can remind him that Housing New Zealand is now little more than a phone answering service with housing need now being assessed by Work and Income. And 6: If someone did want to check on the state of our mythical beneficiary's mental health, why on earth would their first question be 'maybe you could work now?'  This tells us a lot more about Bill English's view of the world than anything about how people in state housing actually live. And that view of the world is mean, petty and intellectually dishonest.

I had resolved for New Year that Spider's blog posts would be more considered and sober and to a large extent that has happened. But in this case? Fuck off back to Dipton, Bill. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The people we resent

This is from Britain's Conservative Prime Minster, David Cameron, at the Tory conference a couple of days ago. We've quoted it here because it could equally as easily have come from either of New Zealand's 'get a job or or FOAD' parties (note the use of the language of the Left in an attempt to appear all-embracing):
This [Conservative] Party is the trade union of the children from the poorest estates and the most chaotic homes. This party is the union for the young woman who wants an apprenticeship. For the teenagers who want to make something of their lives. This is who we resent........
Oops. As Steve Bell says, David Cameron does sincerity well...most of the time.

Since the politics of hate not only manged to not get National thrown out, but returned to office with an increased proportion of the vote, keep an eye out for similar vacant rhetoric and anti-poor policies from the man who claims to be looking for 'fresh ideas' to deal with child poverty. Perhaps ideas aren't the problem, and Mr Key is just looking in the wrong place.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Spring day

Manukau Harbour from Mangere Bridge this afternoon.

And the spare cat. Just hangin'.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Save the date

While the PM is wittering about the flag and some imaginary terrorists, National is pushing through labour reforms, reforms to the RMA and continuing to push the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). If you don't know what the TPPA is Jane Kelsey has written extensively on it (see here, here and here). Meanwhile, the party of the workers is happy to once again shaft them so long as the government releases the text of the agreement two weeks before signing so people can see how many of their economic rights are being traded away.

There a petition against the TPPA (here), and a day of action on November the 8th. Be there!

Let them eat nuts!

How unequal are incomes in New Zealand? And does it really matter? Yesterday the Herald revealed that the top paid executive in New Zealand (the ANZ's David Hisco) earns $4.1 million per year. The person cleaning his office probably earns the minimum wage or thereabouts. How do these compare?

The minimum wage is $14.25 per hour. $4.1 million per year equates to an hourly rate of $1,971. in other words Mr Hisco earns 138 times more than someone on the minimum wage. Of course Mr Hisco will undoubtedly tell anyone who listens that he deserves his pay, and from the ANZ's perspective he probably does. According to the same Herald article, the ANZ raked in $1.37 billion profit last year.

Part of Mr Hisco's job - and that of other top executives like him - is to make sure those profits are not threatened by the office cleaner demanding a fairer share of the GDP pie. To help in this aim they lobby politicians (SkyCity hosting MPs in its box at Eden Park as it pushed through its casino expansion convention centre spring to mind), and join lobby groups such as Business New Zealand and the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

Under this National government these efforts have been largely successful, with real wages barely keeping up with inflation and productivity gains continuing to be retained by employers. During its last term National attempted to pass legislation that undermined the rights of workers to collective bargaining and, as part of that, give employers the right to do away with workers' meal breaks. Apparently, the only way New Zealand's overpaid executives know how to retain or increase their profits is to undermine the rights and conditions of their workers. And Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, was only too happy to oblige. 

As it turned out, National was unable to pass the legislation but now that it can rule unencumbered, the legislation is at the top of John Key's list of things to do. So what do the lobbyists who represent our million dollar execs think about workers not being guaranteed a meal break? A stunning insight was provided by the Employers and Manufacturers Kim Campbell (here, at about 3.54):
"Different people work in different ways. Maybe somebody wants to snack on nuts all day long, I mean that may be their choice. But it enables people to organise the workplace that best suits the work that has to be done."
Pardon? If you don't get a meal break you should just snack on nuts all day? Why yes, that will work in those fast food joints most likely to take advantage of such an obnoxious piece of legislation: "Can I take your order while I'm between mouthfuls of peanuts?" Or maybe people could do what the squirrel here is doing and stuff their mouths and nibble away during the day (or night).

What Mr Campbell has done is take an individual's preferences (and I know a couple of the nut snackers) and suggested the same applies to the workplace if that 'best suits' them. And all said without so much as a blush!

In the meantime, while the business sector is pushing to ensure that the wage gap and corporate profits remain untouched, where is the party of the workers? You know, the one who should be noisily leading the campaign against this vileness? With its head up its arse, engaged in a leadership squabble. What an absolute gift to the Tory right. I hope Mr Hisco's cleaner isn't expecting improved wages and conditions any time soon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

One for the sociologists

So Mr/Ms Sociologist, you think you know your middle class from your underclass? Here's something for you to ponder.

During my Saturday morning shopping trip to Onehunga, I happened to come across a long line spewing out a sidestreet into the main shopping centre:

The queue started at some outfit called Ca$h & Cheque$ which I assume is a fringe lender for folk who can't get a temporary overdraft from a mainstreet bank. So why were a whole lot of people suddenly trying to get loans on a Saturday morning?  They weren't:

They were cashing their AECT cheques. I asked someone how much much they were being charged to cash the cheques? There seemed to be a bit of confusion about whether it was $25 or $29. Which is a fair whack out of a $335 cheque. A couple of people said it was worth paying because cash in the hand today is worth more than money in the bank tomorrow. The interesting thing is that almost all those cashing the cheques were Maori/Pacific. I only saw two palagis and they were with their Pacific relatives. 

Now here's the question for the sociologists: who is this group of almost exclusively brown citizens that are prepared to queue and pay a reasonable sum to get cash on a Saturday morning? Are they people with no access to mainstreet banks? Do they not trust the bank? Are they people who don't want the cash showing up in their bank accounts at all for whatever reason? Are they beneficiaries, working people, or a mix?

I don't know but I bet no one else does, either. Yet here is a significant demographic (some version of this was probably happening in suburbs around Auckland) behaving in a way that clearly makes perfect sense to them but probably mystifies most others. The problem is the mystified ones include people (and I'm thinking of you, Wellingtonians) who are creating policies on these citizens' behalf and pretending to have a clue about how they respond to financial and other incentives. If policymakers can't explain the dynamics behind this phenomenon then their policies will continue to miss the mark for the simple reason that they do not understand their target market. (I say continue because most social policy in New Zealand is only marginally successful but that's another blog.)

My contribution to the rather festive atmosphere was that everyone got to laugh at me taking the photos, and I almost managed to persuade some nice woman to go spend all her money at the hairdresser. An expensive new hairdo for the weekend? For that even I'd cash a cheque.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Otahuhu - global suburb exhibition

Otahuhu - a truly multi-cultural Auckland suburb, on display from October 6-16th.


Why John Key is wrong about child poverty

This blog was written before the election. Nothing has changed. 

I have just gotten off the phone after talking to a young mother who I am hoping to interview for a research project. We have already had to defer the interview once because two of her “mini-humans” had the ‘flu, and this morning we had to defer again because her twins had gotten sick, too.

I stressed that I would very much like to talk to her and suggested Monday if the children were well enough. She said make it Monday and I’ll lock the kids in a room. To which I responded no but I would bring them a bag of mandarins so they could sit and eat those; a suggestion to which this Mum said “oh, thank you” in a tone of voice that suggested a bag of mandarins was like gold. 

It’s not. It’s a bag of mandarins that cost five bucks. But it got me thinking about Prime Minister John Key’s response (available here) to the release of Child Poverty Action Group’s latest report. Mr Key is sanguine about child poverty: yes, of course National want to look like they’re doing something about it, and will even make the right noises. But children growing up in households where fresh fruit is a novelty is not something they really want to spend too much time on. Poor people are icky and embarrassing and it’s much easier to just wage an ideological crusade against cardboard cutout sole parents.

Under National’s watch inequality has, at best, flatlined. But crucially, hidden away (see pp. 135-137) in the latest Household Incomes report from the Ministry of Social Development is data for the number of children living in households with incomes of less than 40% of the current median after housing costs. The percent of all children living in these straitened circumstances has increased from 11% in 2010 to 13% in 2013 – in absolute terms this is an increase of 20,000 children. Hand sanitiser and throat swabs will not reduce or eliminate the desperate poverty of some of these children. 

Mr Key’s response to being reminded of his government’s lack of action on child poverty was, in a nutshell, that parents should just get a job. It sounds plausible (if you’re poor and on a benefit, then get off the benefit!), although it’s really just a soundbite designed to appeal to the redneck talkback set. 

According to Mr Key “Over the last couple of years 30,000 young children have been moved out of poverty and that’s because their parents and caregivers have got jobs.” Yet the government’s own data shows 20,000 children live in households that have gotten poorer. At the same time a concerted effort by Work and Income to cut sole parents off benefits has seen the number of these beneficiaries plummet (although some have moved to Jobseeker Allowance). So where does Mr Key get the 30,000 children from? And how does he know that they have moved out of poverty as a result of their parents moving into paid employment? 

He doesn’t, and nor do we (Ministry of Social Development do not have data on this). He is just speculating, and hoping he doesn’t get sprung. There is, however, a deeper and more troubling issue here. Even if parents are able to move into paid work, and if they earn sufficient money to move out of poverty, what is to be the fate of those who cannot? The thrust of National’s welfare reforms has been that if you can’t or won’t work, or attend pointless CV writing seminars, then you shouldn’t get anything (there’s exceptions for those on a Supported Living Payment). 

Photo stolen from

Consider the woman I talked to this morning. All I know is that she has four children, one of whom has a disability (the nature of which I have not yet established), including young twins. She has just spent a week caring for them because they are sick. How does that fit in with having a job? Having a disabled child, or being a disabled parent, presents a whole different set of challenges: a child may require constant care and attention; there may be medical bills that need to come from the weekly budget; there are probably additional transport costs; and sick parents who are in receipt of Jobseeker Allowance are required to be available for part-time work. If for some reason parents are unable to work, are we as a society happy to throw them and their children on the scrapheap because John Key thinks they should just get a job? And if, as Mr Key says, there is “no evidence” to demonstrate that a bit more money would help, how little money do we think households should have in order to survive? If Mr Key is comfortable that 135,000 children live in households with very low incomes, at what point does he – and his Minister for Social Development – become uncomfortable and do something about it? 

I strongly suspect, on the basis of previous interviews, that our Mum will tell me she has about $150-180 per week to cover all the household expenses for her and her children. No wonder she sounded grateful at the mention of receiving a bag of mandarins. The bigger question is how many other mothers can’t provide their children with fresh fruit, and why so many of us seem to think this is an acceptable state of affairs. Many of these mothers are unable to work, even though many are highly motivated to do so.

It is time this National government stopped blathering about being “absolutely committed” to doing something about child poverty and started actually doing something. I do not accept that a bag of mandarins for the children is a luxury, and none of us should accept the idea that an endless financial black hole should be the inevitable fate of parents who, for whatever reason, are unable to just get a job. New Zealanders are better than that. Or are we? 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Food in schools (again)

A recent column by Gareth Morgan raised the question of whether providing food to children at school was 'a good idea'. I had resolved to ignore this because, well, it's Gareth and his world is different from that of most of us. I am, however, going to point out why I disagree with Gareth mainly because people who I know sit on the left of the political fence appear to agree with Gareth's column. Of course they are well within their rights to do so, but I'd like to offer up an alternative view.

As the three regular readers of this blog know I have done quite a bit of research into feeding kids at school, including academic research, and talking to children and teachers. My view is also informed by having hungry kids turn up on the doorstep; when this happens, one deals with the immediate need first then worries about what might be behind it.

The first point is that Gareth is partly right: food in schools does not deal with the deeper issue of poverty although it can improve children's nutrition (we'll come back to this). But it is not always monetary poverty that is the issue, although lack of money is by far the biggest problem. There is also the poverty of time, primarily among parents who work long and/or unsociable hours, or multiple part-time jobs. Schools report children turning up at 7 in the morning because parents are working, not because they have an 'expectation' that the school will feed them. But food in schools campaigners have never argued that food in schools will deal with underlying issues, just that it deals with the immediate need.

Pondering the issue of poverty, Gareth then plugs his universal basic income idea. In New Zealand the welfare state provides a universal safety net, and this should ideally enable families to feed themselves nutritious food. But it doesn't - beneficiary parents report not having enough money for food, let alone good food. They aim to fill their kids up, and this is usually achieved by buying cheap, fatty, salty food. This is something we could remedy should we want.

Focusing on the possibility of a UBI glosses over the fact that many hungry children come from households where parents are in work. Like many other developed economies, New Zealand has a growing problem with poverty among those in paid employment, something governments are keen not to talk about. Food in schools will not tackle these deep structural issues but the children shouldn't go hungry while adults squabble about who gets what.

From the perspective of improved nutrition, happily, quality food in schools has been shown to improve children’s nutrient uptake as well - and something is always better than nothing. One of the provisions in Mana’s Feed the Kids Bill is that it requires school food meets specified nutritional standards. This is to pre-empt Food and Grocery Council members flogging sugary crud in our schools.

Studies have also shown that breakfast at school reduces the risk of diabetes in later life. Now Gareth knows as well as I do that we not only have a huge wave of baby-boomers about to swamp the medical system, we also have a generation of young fatties whose early onset diabetes will start to swamp the health system at about the same time as the baby-boomers retire. If we can forestall this looming inter-generational conflict now in some small way, shouldn't we do so? Again, food in schools is not a silver bullet, but it can help.

A key paragraph in Gareth's column states that food in schools 'doesn't work'. What bit doesn't work? Dealing with the immediate need of hungry children? Improved nutrition? Improved behaviour in class (try arguing THAT with a teacher)? Improved social atmosphere in the school (the social aspects of school breakfasts are as important as the nutritional aspects)? Or improved academic results? It's true that internationally there is not much government evaluation of their own programmes but that doesn't mean they 'don't work' (the Scottish research is worth reading in this regard). Academic evaluations show mixed results, but much of that depends on the nature of the study. The New Zealand research done by the School of Population Health found that while they could not show improvements in academic results, children who received food at schools had better attendance. This is surely a positive outcome for those children? Again, one of the features of the Mana Bill is that it makes provisions for monitoring and evaluation of programmes. In a country where evaluation of social policy is rare, this is a welcome feature of the Bill.
What about the cost? The Mana Bill estimates the $100 million Gareth quotes, but this is for breakfast and lunch in decile 1-3 schools. In other words, this is a big ask. Child Poverty Action Group estimated a rather more modest approximate $30 million, and suggested that much of the administration could be bolted on to the existing Fruit in Schools programme (which partly deals with the claim New Zealand has no delivery mechanism for a universal food programme). The real cost is likely to fall somewhere between, and will depend in large part on Fonterra's continuing role in partnering with schools to provide breakfasts in schools.

The rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment in Gareth’s column is the section on Rhode School in Hamilton. I've sat through Shane Ngatai droning on about how amazing his school is, and there is no doubt he has achieved good things. However, as any principal will tell you, every school is different, and what works at one may well not work at another. I wonder, for instance, how easy it is to get 'the community' involved when there are high rates of transience among residents or parents are too busy working to be involved in their children's education? The bigger problem, though, is that it relies on the 'principal as hero' model of education. In other words, whether children are at a school where there is a garden, whether they learn to cook the food they have grown etc etc depends entirely on the priorities and motivation of the principal.

This should not have to be the case. If we think it is important for schools to teach kids to grow their own food and eat healthily, then ALL schools should be funded to do just that if they wish to do so (some don't). If we think it's important that the immediate effects of poverty should be dealt with in the interests of children's education, then schools should be funded to do that, too.

Where Gareth and I will (probably) continue to disagree is whether food in schools creates an expectation that parents don't have to feed their children. It doesn't, in my experience. CPAG found that in schools where breakfast was provided between 10-20% of children availed themselves of breakfast. The rest were - surprise! - fed at home, by their caregivers. And so what if it does? Perhaps we need to think about this differently. I recall speaking to one mother who sent her child to school for breakfast because there was nothing in the house, but the fact that there was food available for her child at school made her feel as though she, as a parent, was being supported, and that her child was welcome. Wouldn't it be great if all parents felt supported? Food in schools might be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but when you've fallen, you're probably glad it’s there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Akshully, John, I'm not relaxed about child poverty

Be there! Because every step counts.

Is @johnkeypm being economic with the truth?

From the Herald this morning:
Mr Key said that while his office was told the information [about the Official Information Act request] was being sent to Slater, he personally wasn't told.
"What does happen is my office gets told if an OIA [Official Information Act response] is going out. More often than not they don't tell me."
And yet in the letter below, Mr Tucker tells Felix Marwick "I notified the Prime Minister (in accordance with my usual practice...)".

Gentle reader, this was an OIA request to the SIS pertaining to the then leader of the Opposition. Is it really plausible that no one in Mr Key's office thought it necessary to inform the PM that this information - redacted or otherwise - was being released? We leave it for you to decide.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

And then, at the end of the day...

Guyon Espiner realises he's paid to make politicians feel uncomfortable; the wheels came off the PM's media soundbites; and suddenly Mr Smiley Wavey isn't so smiley any more. Stolen from twitter, a partial transcript of yesterday's interview of John Key by Guyon Espiner on Morning Report.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Spider's political affiliations

We've been following the Nicky Hagar's revelations about bloggers Cameron Slater and David Farrar getting fed information, OIA requests and whatnot. In the interests of openness and transparency, Spider and I thought it best to reveal our own political alliances, party memberships and the substantial kickbacks we receive for peddling misinformation and corporate propaganda.

So. Now you know.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Spider and friend practice the 'leave!' command.

(No soft toys were hurt during this training session.)

And here's a nice photo of Spider taken by one of his friends.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Data points

Following on from the previous post where we contemplated data points as real people with real problems, here is a short video from Auckland Action Against Poverty taken at their benefit impact in Mangere yesterday. Benefit impacts should be unnecessary, and people should be given their full legal entitlements so they can at least afford the (very basic) necessaries of life.

An earlier press release from AAAP outlines some of the shortfalls in WINZ's client-focused support. (Similar stories are common from other advocates and beneficiaries.)
  • A 48 year old man has had heart attacks, a serious brain injury, heart surgery and a defibrillator inserted into his heart since 2012. His heart surgeon wrote a letter to his GP in 2013, “in support of him being placed on a longer term benefit.” Work and Income continued to treat this man as a Jobseeker, fully able to work...
  • A man with 3 children needs a fridge and school uniforms for his children. When he applied for bond money to move into a flat Work and Income left him to pay $400 of the bond putting the family into further financial hardship. Work and Income had the ability to help him and his children with all of these things and declined to do so.
  • A woman with a 2 year old child paying rent of $450 per week wanted to move into a cheaper flat. She had transport costs from going to job interviews. She also needed money to buy tyres to get a Warrant of Fitness for her car. Work and Income declined to help her.
There is no doubt our welfare system needs to be reformed, and advocates such as Sue Bradford have been calling for just this for a long time. These miserable failures of social support show why reform is necessary.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Theoretically indisputable

The definitive (according to Children's Commissioner Russell Wills) book on child poverty in New Zealand (called Child Poverty in New Zealand) landed gently on my desk recently. Written by Jonathan Boston from the University of Victoria and Simon Chapple, currently with the University of Otago but who has previously worked for the OECD, it is a reasonably lengthy work.

The first few chapters traverse well-established ground. However when the reader gets to chapter 6, the plot seems to unravel. The authors point out that there is very little social research done in New Zealand to underpin, monitor or evaluate our social assistance policies. This is especially pertinent under the current government where hard data is increasingly being replaced by Paula Bennett's 'common sense'.

However, chapter 6 is infused with a sense of moral panic centred on the fact that women (because it is women who are perceived to be the problem) might be out of the workforce caring for children for months or years at a time. This is more difficult terrain for men working with statistics because each one of those data points is a woman with a complex life juggling competing interests, caught in a matrix of political and financial pressures over which she has little control. It takes a great deal of analytical and narrative skill to avoid creating the perception that these mothers are to blame for their own predicament. One is left with an uneasy sense that this has not been achieved.  

The language is telling: New Zealand has a "passive" employment strategy for parents; a benefit is a "subsidy"; complexity in the benefit system means people may be "reluctant to change their behaviour and gain more employment" (note this is a benefit design issue, not a behaviour issue); and, incredibly, "parental (ie women's) re-entry into the labour market should be supported where it is developmentally appropriate for the child...this developmentally appropriate point lies somewhere between three and four months of age and when the youngest child is aged three." 3-4 months?? And note the use of the word 'support'. This suggests women with young children will be, um, supported. The reality of the work-first policies implicitly endorsed by the authors is that there is almost no support but a lot of grief for failure to comply with petty job-seeking and social obligations.

The section that stood out for its behaviouralistc quackery was this (p. 131): 
The payment of welfare benefits to families who do not work creates a number of potential issues. Firstly, as it guarantees income to people not in paid employment, including those with children, it creates incentives not to work. While theoretically indisputable, much debate surrounds how large this effect is in practice...
Theoretically indisputable. What does that even mean?  In the real world of beneficiary bashing the distinction between the creation of an incentive and the assumption that people will respond to that incentive is blurred. In a theoretical world where poor women with children will behave in ways that maximise their utility, the line is assumed not to exist. In a policy world where the utterances of economists are often taken as evidence, the use of the term 'indisputable' will have perverse and unintended political consequences. As academics, the authors need to be clear about what is indisputable: the theory, the creation of the incentive, or its effect.    

There is evidence from New Zealand that this effect - if it exists at all - is probably quite small. The best predictor of beneficiary numbers is the state of the economy, and the unemployment rate in particular. Now it's true, as First Dog on the Moon cogently points out, that some people would rather stay home than work but given benefit payment rates in New Zealand this is likely a fairly small number.  There are no doubt poor Pavlovian Mums - and even households - who allocate scarce family labour to child-rearing in order to obtain a benefit. However, the question I would ask in relation to such behaviour is how did we manage to create such a crap social economy that these incentives make sense?

In the 1970s and 80s benefit payment rates were relatively much higher than they are today but the numbers on benefits was very low because we had full employment. In 1991 Ruth Richardson decided she was going to incentivise beneficiaries to work and slashed benefits. Did the ungrateful poor get off their chuffs and find jobs? No. Because there were very few jobs available. Unemployment peaked at 11% in 1991 and had only drifted down to 9% by 1996. The immediate, long-lasting and socially devastating impact of the benefit cuts was a dramatic increase in child poverty (a point the authors concede). There is no evidence the benefit cuts changed anyone's behaviour.

This work not only overlooks the fact that before mothers can re/claim their place in the workforce appropriate work needs to be available for them but to suggest there is a theoretical case for them not to do so is a political statement; one that denies zero-hours contracts, no guarantee of a minimum income, and uncertain hours. With respect to your undoubted good intentions, you're not in Chicago now, gentlemen.

But wait! There is a glimmer of market-making hope. Because all these mums will be back in the workforce when their children are very young, someone will need to care for them. Someone at the local daycare. Someone who will be paid to do the same job a mother does for free. It is theoretically indisputable that, in terms even an economist would understand, this is a perverse outcome.  

I am familiar with the work of Messers Boston and Chapple, and I do not doubt they are on the side of good. They routinely contest policy that impoverishes children, and do so in this book. What makes Spider's blood boil is that their tools are inadequate for the difficult and complex job of addressing the concept of childcare as 'work' in its own right, and how this might be supported. Rather, they create opportunities for political actors (many of whom they may disagree with) who, divorced from the financial trials and moral quandries of poverty, truly are incentivised, self-interested rational maximisers. That is a shame for us all.        

And another...

Filling the gap left by an unquestioning mainstream media. Thank you, F.U.N

I Don't Recall...-HD from F.U.N on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Satirists: doing us all a favour

Planet Key is written and performed by Darren Watson. The video was created by Jeremy Jones from Propeller Motion. This project is entirely self funded so by buying this song you are also contributing to the cost of this work. Think of it as helping with the trickle down.
This song can be purchased at itunes.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mutt's day

We have a couple of them. Here they are. And a photo of the best stand of palms in Auckland at sunrise (no filters or other photo editing). #otahuhuforlife!

Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Herald's John Key obsession

From the Angry Man with the Computer at neetflux, a mock-up of what the Herald might look like if the editorial decisions were left to one or two of their staff (you know who they are). We're posting this in case it gets pulled down again (like the brilliant poster of Cameron Slater).

Thank you, Angry Man. Those of us with no imagination or photoshop skills salute you!

Look! Nits, everyone!

A recent Roy Morgan poll about New Zealander's concerns found that 44% of us rated an economic issue as being the most important problem facing New Zealand. This suggests 44% of us fret about weighty matters like interest rates, the exchange rate, bank lending ratios and what the Reserve Bank's inflation target should be. But a closer look at the numbers shows that this is not the case. By far the biggest concern (18%) is "Poverty/ The Gap Between Rich & Poor/ Imbalance of Wealth". Here's a breakdown of the 44%:

This has evidently also shown up in National's focus groups as well because they have been keen to show they're pretending to do something about poverty, especially child poverty. Which brings us to the following bizarre parliamentary exchange about headlice and poverty between National's Melissa Lee and Social Development Minster Paula Bennett. Here's the uncorrected transcript:

10. Schools—Treatment of Head Lice
[Sitting date: 13 May 2014. Volume:698;Page:17745. Text is subject to correction.]

10. MELISSA LEE (National) to the Minister for Social Development: What recent announcements has she made about helping parents deal with the nits epidemic?
Hon PAULA BENNETT (Minister for Social Development): There are some odd days in Parliament. Thanks to nearly $1 million in Government funding, KidsCan will be putting special chairs in 117 low-decile schools and then funding combs, treatments, and specialist nit-busters—
Hon ANNETTE KING: What a nitwit policy this is.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I cannot hear you. Spit it out. Come on. What is your problem?
Mr SPEAKER: Order! That just shows the difficulty we get into with this constant barrage of interjection coming across the floor. Would the Minister please complete her answer.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: Sorry, Mr Speaker. So we have got 117 low-decile schools and then funding for combs, treatments, and specialist nit-busters to treat the kids for nits. Kids will be treated as many times as they need to be treated to get rid of their nits, and their parents and siblings can also get treated in order to eradicate the pests from the whole family, if necessary.
MELISSA LEE: Why is treating nits so important?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: It is more than just a hassle. It is more than just a hassle. Some children are getting serious infections due to untreated nits, which can require hospital treatment. I heard the story last week of two young 6-year-old girls who actually had their heads shaved just to get rid of them. This new programme will reach 24,000 children and their families and will go a long way to helping those low-income families.

Special chairs?! What sort of chairs? One hopes this is a transcription error. The Minister then goes on to say that the government is funding KidsCan to provide combs, treatment and...specialist nit busters? What is a specialist nit buster? Do you get one with the special chair? This generous service will go to 117 low-decile schools. There's that many low-decile schools in Auckland alone, so this programme is not providing comprehensive coverage. We are also told that kids "and their parents and siblings can also get treated" if necessary. Bring out the sheep dip!

So how does this work? Are kids given their combs and treatment in front of other kids? Or is this process one such that the combs and treatment quietly get dropped in a rubbish bin on the way home from school (children have a way of subverting our best intentions)? I'm sure schools have developed ways to do this sensibly but there seems plenty of room for miscommunication if children with headlice are being sent to the nit buster.

The Otago Public Health Nursing Service has found subsidized ‘Headlice Treatment’ to have short term benefits, compared with ‘Detection Combing’. This usually involves a 'whole school' approach with ongoing support to both school staff and families. It also helps to get buy-in from the whole community. There are local examples of this more inclusive approach being effective (a discussion thread about this can be found on the Health Promoting Schools website). It's not sexy, it doesn't provide a springboard for politicians to get publicity, but it works.

But the Minister goes on! 'This new programme will reach 24,000 children and their families and will go a long way to helping those low-income families.' 

How on earth does a nit treatment that barely works 'go a long way' toward helping low-income families? What a load of twaddle. Nearly a fifth of us think poverty and inequality are important. What we have here is lousy politics.