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 https://www.facebook.com/cpagNZ

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.