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.

Who backs the backing singers in the rock star economy?

According to some chap called Paul Bloxham, New Zealand will be the 'rock star economy' of 2014. This dubious claim was given some airing earlier in the year because Mr Bloxham works for a Big Bank and therefore knows about economies and whatnot. The claim also happens to fit with the 'we're all better off now' narrative peddled by the mainstream media as it campaigns to get the National government re-elected. One of the few challenges to this claim came from a Stuff article suggesting most of us were roadies rather than rock stars. This is not surprising. The rock stars are corporates with political clout, not low-income households with overdue traffic fines.

As every concertgoer knows, apart from odd exceptions (solo acoustic sets, Slayer), rock stars also have backing singers. These warblers presumably do their thing, pick up their pay and go home (I'm speculating here). So it is with our economy. The backing vocalists keeping things joined together are cleaning our offices, caring for our elderly, and working on shop floors. Most of them are women.

Sadly things have not been going so well for these un/rock stars in recent years. Most of us are familiar with the statistics: women earn less than men even when they are doing the same work, they are more likely to be unskilled or semi-skilled, and are more likely to lose out careerwise if they are raising children. 

About half of all mothers will be reliant on a benefit at some time while they are raising their children. Usually these benefit stints are relatively short, but they can lengthen when the children are very young or a child is disabled, or the mother has limited access to transport. As this blog has noted previously, women have also suffered more unemployment in the endless economic downturn New Zealand has endured since 2009.

Women, specifically women on what is now called Sole Parent Support (SPS), have also been vigorously targeted in the government's welfare reforms. Apparently they are bleeding the country dry, a point which has been hammered home with propaganda about multi-billion dollar future welfare costs. The future liabilities are bogus economics but they provide an alibi for the Minister's regular - and unprovable - assertions that the numbers on SPS have fallen because parents have moved from welfare into work.

There are many reasons to be highly sceptical of this claim but we will focus on only one here, and that is that unemployment rates among women remain well above what they were prior to the global financial crisis. This applies not only to women, but to unemployment generally, but that's a topic for another post. Below is a graph showing unemployment rates for women from late 2007, when unemployment was low, through to March 2014. The data was done by region although only two - Auckland and Northland - have been shown here, as well as the total. What the graph clearly shows is that despite the spin, unemployment went up steeply after the GFC and has remained high. Worse, it is showing signs of trending up again. This pattern can be seen in most regions, with Canterbury and Otago being exceptions. 
Data from Statistics NZ Household Labour Force Survey

In the Auckland region unemployment among women has risen since September 2013 to 8% while the number of SPS recipients has fallen by about 1,000.This raises two questions: if sole parents are being moved off benefits into work, where is the work; and are these women just displacing others in the labour market? Clearly mothers are not 'moving into paid work' because relatively more jobs are being created. 

So what is happening to those mothers who are no longer on a benefit but have been unable to find work? We have no idea because although National's welfare reforms have been sold with such great promise, it appears no one is allowed to know whether they are working or even how they are going to be evaluated

In the meantime we are left with the awkward fact that in our rock star economy, the incomes of thousands of women are increasingly precarious as unemployment refuses to fall and welfare assistance becomes harder to obtain and keep.

Why is no one challenging the narrative that everyone is benefiting equally from the improvement in the economy? One organisation that should be speaking out is the Ministry of Women's Affairs, but...silence. Households that have had $1 billion sucked out of them by the combined ravages of unemployment and welfare reform are not enjoying the after-show champagne.  

And why is no one (apart from children's advocates) challenging Paula Bennett's oft-repeated assertion that somehow this is 'good for children'? Because what is happening in some of those households isn't good for anyone.