Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hungry Hungry Kids

From tsmithfield at 12.55 pm in reply to The Standard's post "Too Many Hungry Kids":

Anyway, do you agree that IF parents in NZ avail themselves of all the help available (WINZ, emergency grants, foodbanks, etc) there is no need for any children to go hungry in NZ. If so, the argument for why the fault is with parents not the government runs like this:

1. There is sufficient resources in the system to ensure that no children go hungry.
2. Responsible parents would ensure they availed themselves of all available resources to ensure their children didn’t go hungry.
3. Children are going hungry.
4. Therefore, the reason that children are going hungry is that not all parents are responsible.

I really really like people who use deductive logic; it pleases me greatly when people tease out their arguments. So even though I know T Smithfield not at all, I'm writing directly in response to his or her comment because I think it spells out the conservative viewpoint really nicely, and I'm posting it to my own blog because (a) the Standard isn't an especially welcoming forum, and (b) like everything I write, this is likely to be long.

I'm going to accept point 1 above very quickly: I think it clear that New Zealand is in a position to feed all her people; we're not in a famine.

I'm also going to accept point 3 as a point of general knowledge, and one that's being pretty widely discussed in the media at present.

For the purpose of this post, I'm going to extend "parent" to include anyone who has dependant children, because I don't see the purpose of excluding custody arrangements other than "mum and/or dad looking after kids".

There are two main reasons why I think the argument above doesn't work well in reality. One is internal to the logic, and one is external; I'm starting with the former.

I: Responsibility, availability, and The System
Let's start with the position that a parent deliberately withholding sufficient food from their child constitutes abuse, that abuse is a separate issue, and that here we're talking about parents who are, or who feel themselves, unable to provide sufficient food for their child.

An analogy:

My mother is an advocate for the elderly and the disabled. As such, she is very very familiar with the workings of WINZ, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, and various social agencies. My grandfather, her father, has recently been diagnosed with dementia and is currently going through a slow and horrible decline (even from a distance, it's uncomfortable to watch: and we're not close). She doesn't live in the same city as her father, and her brother who does is acting as his welfare guardian as he's no longer able to make many decisions himself.

When things go wrong with the careworkers, as they often do (careworkers aren't brilliantly paid, for starters; also, the administrative skills required to organise a large number of staff over dozens of disparate locations are immense and time-consuming. Stuff gets missed), my mum gets called. Her brother finds dealing with the agencies really difficult and frustrating; my mother calls them and explains what she wants to happen and what their legal responsibilities are and then it gets fixed.

This isn't because she knows how to game the system; it's because learning how to get the most out of a large and complex bureaucracy is a learned skill. She's been working in the field for more than 10 years (and she got into it in the first place because my younger brother is disabled).

Social assistance is a similarly large and complex bureaucracy. You don't just rock up to WINZ and ask for money. There's also Budget Advisory Services, various charities which provide emergency assistance, Citizen's Advice Bureau, Housing New Zealand, your children's schools, and so on. There are many different agencies, and they all have different people to talk to and different (sometimes contradictory) policies and aims.

People do not magically know the best way to approach a foodbank when their cupboards run bare. It is a learned skill. Not all parents who have hungry children will have learned that skill yet; they may have suffered a complete collapse in the family finances recently. Maybe up until now friends have helped them out. Maybe mum did have a job but has been laid off.

And—I'm a highly-educated, literate person and I still find forms really confusing. Admittedly I've never had impending hunger to spur me on, but I'm honestly not sure if I could manage to figure out all the help I could get if I found my funds weren't going far enough.

WINZ isn't in the habit of widely advertising everything a person can get access to; you sort of need to know what question to ask. As for the charities, they do exist but they don't advertise much either; they can't. When they do, literally hundreds of people turn up.

I'm really, really uncomfortable with the idea that not knowing how to get stuff automatically makes you irresponsible. There's probably a point where it does: if you know how to contact a charity and know that they can help you, but you don't because you can't be bothered, for example. Though that would fall towards the abuse end of the spectrum, for me. I'm not sure where I'd place "didn't contact them because I was embarrassed and ashamed of being unable to provide for my own kids", and that's probably a more realistic example.

Tied into this is the actual availability of assistance at any particular instance of food crisis.

WINZ has really strict guidelines on how often a beneficiary can get an emergency grant. I believe foodbanks (usually) put the same kind of boundaries on how much and how often they'll give assistance to an individual or family.*

So if you're a household that has had several food crises in a row, some of the help out there in the world may not actually be available to you, because you've already hit your limit for the year. Maybe you've made really bad spending choices, or maybe you've just had a series of really bad shit happen to you. Unexpected expenses can and do arise: the kids have lots of ear infections or respitory disease; the car breaks down and you have to fix it or else dad legit cannot get to work**. If there's not a lot of fat in your budget at the best of times, these unexpected expenses will be very difficult to deal with.

So the kids go hungry.

And that's shit. I don't want anyone reading this to get the impression that I think kids going hungry is somehow okay. It isn't.

But I think it's faulty logic to say that hungry kids implies without exception irresponsible parenting. The parents may well be acting the best they can, doing the best they can, and with every intention of giving their kids the best lifestyle they can - and still not do very well.

II: Where the harm lies.
My more serious objection to the standard conservative "irresponsible parents! don't encourage them!" line is that, you know, the problem that we are discussing here is one of HUNGRY CHILDREN.

The children have not gone and signed their mums up to the DPB.

They have not rocked up to the Sallies for a food parcel.

They didn't ask for mum to be laid off, or for nana to have gotten sick, or for their dad to be addicted to the pokies, or for whatever problem has occurred in their families that means they're now not getting enough to eat.

It isn't that I have some idealised view of children as little innocent lambikins who deserve nothing but cuddles and good times. It's that children aren't in a position to be able to determine their own fate. They don't decide who their guardians are.

Perhaps more crucially to this debate, they don't get to vote, or to determine public policy, or to have their opinions quoted in the newspapers, or to write blog posts. We decide what their needs are, and then we implement policies to achieve them. We seem to have decided that a need of children is that they not be hungry. Awesome!

Buuuuuut, like. If there are areas of New Zealand where lots of parents are not giving their kids breakfast or lunch (and there are areas!), whether that's because they're all irresponsible or because shit has gone wrong in their lives or because of a combination of things, the thing we should be focussing on is that THERE ARE AREAS OF NEW ZEALAND WHERE LOTS OF KIDS ARE GOING HUNGRY.

Talk all you like about personal responsibility: you're still not talking about the actual harm. Personal responsiblity does not here lie with the people who suffer the harm. Talk all you like about not encouraging people to remain dependant on the state, but don't fool yourself that you're helping the ACTUAL HUNGRY CHILDREN when you talk about "moving into work" and "bootstraps". I totally agree that full-time work does usually provide a better lifestyle than living on benefits! It still isn't the point!

Public policy should be firmly aimed at solving the specific identified problem, and not some other random thing that you've tacked on there for shits and ideology. The specific identified problem here is hungry children, not irresponsible parents, and the policy should therefore focus on said hungry children and not the sins of their fathers.

PS: Throwing Money At Problems Won't Help

Actually, throwing money at problems is the standard first step to resolving them. Labour and resources cost money if you don't have them already (unless you can barter for them or receive them as gifts).

People unable to access healthcare? We fund better access! The amount of money thrown at a problem may be proportionally very small or very large: at one end, redesigning a single form so that it makes more sense to the people using it; at the other, redesigning an entire computer system.

I don't purport to believe that throwing money is in and of itself a solution. Obviously there must be thought involved to determine what the best solution is and how to achieve it.

Where the problem is explicitly that some people lack resources, the solution is inevitably going to cost money (assuming that you agree that the problem is a problem and should be resolved). It doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot of money, and part of the decision-making process is figuring out what represents best value.

But an education program aimed at teaching budgeting skills costs money.

Raising wages costs money***.

Raising benefits costs money.

Foodbanks cost money. School breakfast schemes cost money. Putting the kids into CYFS custody costs money.

You know what, in this, doesn't cost a cent? Leaving the kids to go hungry.

* And there are good reasons for this, most fundamentally that their resources also are limited.

** Haaaaah, the public transport debate: You Don't Really Need A Car. See, public transport (plus the occasional taxi) works well for me, as a person who works Normal Office Hours and who lives in an inner suburb. It doesn't work for my dad, who works a night shift (the buses don't run that late!), or my mum (who does work Normal Office Hours, but whose job requires her to travel anywhere in the North Shore/Waitakere DHB area to visit clients). It would work well for one of my brothers, though he does have a car, but not for the other, due to his disabilities.

*** Though is WAY more complicated than that.


  1. Plus, I remember reading from No Right Turn that benefits are purposely set at below starvations, as some kind of incentive. So, actually if you might manage to apply for and get everything that is available, that might still not be enough!

    We've signed up to a charity that provides children's breakfasts. The situation is heartbreaking.

  2. I'm not at all convinced from my dealings with them that WINZ have changed much since the days when it was their policy to conceal from people what help was available. You have to be smart, persistent, experienced and preferably internet-connected to deal with WINZ, let alone the confusing array of charities, and any political strategy that depends on everyone acting optimally and being more than averagely good at bureaucracies is going to fail. Predictably and a lot.

    I get frustrated when people like the commenter you quote insist on looking for individual answers to systemic problems. Maybe if there was one hungry kid in NZ, it would make sense to look at how it happened and ways the kid's family could avoid it happening again, but if there are thousands, it's not because thousands of families have simultaneously decided to make bad choices. It's a fault in the system. And when I think about benefits being set at below starvation levels, resulting in food banks struggling and having to cut people off at one parcel per month, it's hard not to conclude that it's a feature rather than a bug.

  3. In the US, my local agency responsible for distributing federal food stamps a) rented billboards advertising the program, b) put the application in extremely plain English, and c) unified its online portals/application/etc. so that you can learn about all the different types of aid available right in one place. I think all of this is very helpful and meets applicants halfway in a way I wouldn't have expected.

    ...Unfortunately, the benefits usually don't cover a family's entire food budget, and applying for them means you have to spend a few hours at the local office during office hours, but at least they're there.