Poverty in New Zealand is very hidden, Most of us look OK. We haven’t got the distended stomach and the hollow eyes of the malnourished, but it’s still very real… we’re talking about New Zealand, a country that’s very blessed and yet 20% of kids in this blessed country are living in poverty.
These were the words of Michael Gorman, Christchurch City Missioner. He was quoted in an investigative article by Kim Knight in the Sunday Star Times. Knights story was spurred by recent comments uttered by Prime Minister John Key, who told parliament that the use of food banks resulted from peoples poor lifestyle choices. While at the last election Key campaigned on concern for the “underclass” and played up his own roots being raised in a state house to refugee parents, his years as a Merrill Lynch banker have set him light years apart from those relying on food banks to eat.
Maybe its hard to see poor people when you live here
The more cynical among us would suggest that Key is well aware of the poverty that exists in this country, but puts food-insecurity down to “lifestyle choices” as a means of softening the blow when his government enacts a series of welfare reforms later this year. The upside to Keys (ignorant or carefully calculated) comments, is that the media has seen a story in the lives of the poor. Knights’ report, which interviews several welfare beneficiaries, is a prime example of that. Beneficiaries are rarely given a voice in the media when issues of poverty or welfare are discussed. Tragically, even those who speak on their behalf usually receive little attention. When Innes Asher, professor of paediatrics at Auckland medical school and a world authority on child health, delivered a speech to the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners last year highlighting the fact that Maori children and others from poor families are growing up in conditions comparable to the worst slums in Chile and India, the only media (other than blogs) to pick up on the story were Maori news websites.
While fictional, Mike Riddel’s novel The Insatiable Moon (now a feature film) has beneficiaries as its lead characters, telling a story of the kind usually absent from New Zealand’s public discourse.
Back in 2009, when MediaWorks owned TV3 held a telethon for children’s charity KidsCan, The TV Guide (a magazine not usually looked too for hard-hitting journalism) asked TV3 newsreader Mike McRoberts what it tells us about New Zealand society that money has to be raised for children who are stuck in poverty he responded “It tells me two things really. First that poverty does exist in our country and whatever the reason is for poverty, children are suffering.” ‘Poverty: We’re against it’ is an easy line for the media to take. Hopefully, in 2011, an election year, the media will go further; ask the hard questions and investigate the interwoven political and economic causes -and solutions to- New Zealand’s poverty problems. Given that the television coverage of the last election was the least policy focussed in living memory we’ll have to hope damn hard.