Poverty

Beneficiary Bashing

In the last couple of weeks, we have once more been subjected to another round of “beneficiary bashing” thanks to a pronouncment from the Minister of Social Development, Ms Paula Bennett,  that New Zealander’s on a benefit are “abusing the privilege” and going on overseas holidays at a shockingly high rate.

Sadly it’s not unusual for this Government to level accusations at “beneficiaries” based on fairly shaky data.  But while pundits have been suggesting that those in power do this as a distraction technique, using these stories to predictably shift attention away from more tricky matters, I wondered: what is the prejudice that exists in the constituency that this hooks into?  Why do some people see those on a benefit so negatively?

Mark Sainsbury and I talked about this on Radio Live this week. (Click here for audio of the interview)

I think it’s important to recognize that one of the unfortunate side effects of a capitalist, “work is value” based ethic is prejudice.  Nowhere in the west is this more clear than in the United States of America, where some studies suggest that people react with “revulsion and disgust” to those struggling with poverty, and that the strength of their negative prejudice is even greater than that of racism (Click her for the whole article).

To understand prejudice we need to understand in-group/ out-group psychology.  At the risk of over simplifying a rather large body of research, basically as human beings we’re hard wired to treat “not like me” with suspicion, and at times outright hostility.  This hostility is generally strengthened by increased “in group” identity.  Racism is the obvious example: white “supremacist” groups strengthen in group (white) identity and strengthen out group hostility (racism towards ethnic minorities.)

Modern market capitalism has created a new in group, the hard working middle class.  This in group has been created in large part by the neo-liberal philosophies so enthusiastically adopted by New Zealand politicians, influenced by the USA and the UK.  The working middle class owns their own home, have a good job, support themselves and are law abiding.  And more over, they are told that their success is because of a system that allows them to profit from hard work, perseverance and their own natural talents.  This myth is exemplified by John “born in a state house” Key and Paula “single mother done good” Bennett.

But it is a myth.  It’s a myth because our own egos (some more than others) simply don’t allow us to see or acknowledge the role that luck, the help and support of others plays (including the government) and this help is not only necessary, but vital in individual successes.  It’s also uncomfortable to acknowledge that “just” being Pakeha, or male, or born into a non-abusive or non-neglectful environment, also gives people an advantage.  And this is also, obviously, luck not talent.

The flip side of this myth is: “if you’re poor you must deserve it”.  It’s the logical inverse of “hard work equals success.”  And it’s this logic that drives welfare policy and the recent welfare reforms that see work as the only “treatment”, and the ultimate, or only measure of success.  This philosophy also creates some of the more bizarre and de-humanising behaviours displayed by WINZ of late, like case managers jointly rising to their feet and applauding when a “job-seeker” finds work. (Click here for the whole story)

And as a myth it’s also not supported by sociological literature, in what is referred to as “social mobility” research.  And guess which are the two developed countries with the lowest levels of social mobility? The USA and the UK.  And the countries with the highest levels of social mobility (ability to move “vertically” from relative poverty to relative wealth, or a higher socioeconomic “bracket”) are the social-Democrat countries of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Canada.

The research also shows that the strongest predictor of a lack of social mobility is income inequality.  And guess what has recently been steadily growing in New Zealand?

“Despite historically being one of the developed world’s most equal societies, that changed between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, when income inequality accelerated, Rashbroke said.  In 2010, New Zealand was ranked 20th among 34 OECD countries in terms of income inequality… …one of the biggest problems with entrenched inequality was the way it “makes a lie” of the idea that there were equal opportunities.” (Click here for the whole article)

To look for solutions, we have to return to Social Psychology, and some science to see what breaks down prejudice.  The research says what helps is increased knowledge, reducing anxiety about contact between those that are different, and increased empathy.  But how does that apply here?

It’s tricky, not only because of a lack of knowledge, but because of the level of cultural and individual denial.  Because to empathize with those less fortunate, we are forced to face the very real and scary prospect (if you’ll forgive the theology) that “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Illness, redundancy, loss of a spouse or a partner leaving someone literally holding the baby.  This is what the reality of being forced into a WINZ office is really about.  It is not about character.

And if you want to read about the actual reality of it, you can do no better than to read the blog of one Ms. Sarah Wilson, a.k.a. @writehandedgirl.  She honestly, and bravely at times, has documented her struggle with receiving fair treatment from a system that seems increasingly bereft of empathy, or at times even just normal human decency.  To quote her…

“I’m tired. I’m so tired of this. I almost want to force myself to go back to work because trying to stay on a benefit is more stressful than working full time with a debilitating chronic illness.”  (Click here for the rest of the post)

If you’ve had similar experiences yourself (and everyone I talk to who has had dealings with WINZ has) you might want to read her excellent resource on what your rights are, and what support is available.

And if you’re still doubting how complicated and entrenched our attitudes, and our apathy is to those less fortunate are, then watch this.  It says it all really…

Leave a Comment

  • Geoff April 20, 2014, 5:16 pm

    The whole greed, far right Capitalist economy is entrenched through a multitude of Global Central Bank and Treasury Economic white papers that emphasise GDP growth. These papers are aimed at squeezing out every last cell of human energy toward consumption and therefore capture of Human endeavour by the increasingly skewed pattern of wealth inequality. Lately this GDP growth or bust philosophy has had to include the disabled as well; as the growth engine slowed and stalled inconveniencing Bankers, Petroleum producers and Insurance moguls world wide. This capturing of middle class labour effort by the beneficiary’s of big business has left the middle class with little time to think and see through the illusion of Ego structure deftly constructed by modern Government, as they strive for their next material purchase to prove their superiority over their neighbour. An Ego structure, that emphasises that my success is because of the superiority of I and personal effort rather than the seed that was all our gift at birth regardless of personal striving. We have become Ego’s of training and are hypnotised in our own self glory, to the betterment of those who encourage this state of deep unquestioned sleep. The loathing of Beneficiaries, by these captured human economic inputs called the middle class is “taught loathing” by a Government who wishes to maintain control over this massive human resource and encourages this “selective” discrimination to maintain the veil of secrecy over the true beneficiaries of their labour. The US Fed Bank is a fine example, where since 2009 they have progressively and aggressively reflated the Banks and Corporates by accepting zombie assets for obscene amounts of new money that uses the future middle class as the debtor. This reflation has been aided by global allies maintaining high interest rates that have transferred asset bubbles out of the US and into foreign economies. The US is only realising now, that it will not be able to work it’s way out of the 2009 mess by dropping a Tsunami money from helicopters and so the middle class may soon be jolted out of their long period of slumber and slavery, only to find they are in the same predicament as their fellow man; on the dole or suffering from misfortune induced poverty.

    Reply
  • Andrew Duncan April 27, 2014, 12:17 pm

    Great piece, Kyle, Thanks.
    I discovered another bit of the injustice today: Note that the government has just implemented legislation that holds beneficiaries partners jointly accountable for any welfare fraud and subsequent debt created because of dishonesty. Paradoxically, such legislation is not applied to the partners of white collar criminals!!
    Cheers,
    Andrew

    Reply
    • Kyle MacDonald April 27, 2014, 8:46 pm

      Says a lot doesn’t it. And also let’s not forget those on a benefit also pay tax, unlike many…

      Reply
  • Philip Culbertson April 28, 2014, 2:19 pm

    Kyle, I applaud your social consciousness. Originally, that was one of the overarching goals of psychotherapy. Glad to see you keeping the tradition alive. Philip

    Reply
    • Kyle MacDonald April 28, 2014, 2:51 pm

      Thanks Phillip! And nice to hear from you.

      Reply

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