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A homeless man, an election, and a bit of Mad Max.

A homeless man, an election, and a bit of Mad Max.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Lower Hutt street, a woman and her children decided to do something kind for someone else.  They gave carefully chosen and prepared food to a homeless man. A few moments later they drove past the same area again, only to see that this man had thrown the food all over the street. She posted about the dismay she and her children felt at this apparent rejection of their kindness. The story was picked up by the New Zealand Herald and garnered much feverish comment.

The social media response fascinating to me. It was somewhat split between those who believed the man in the story to have been ungrateful, or simply insufficiently poor. Others presumed him to have been sufficiently poor, sufficiently destitute, but probably afflicted with a mental health condition that might have explained his response.

Interestingly there was also a thread of comments from people who reckoned they knew him; that they were familiar with his behaviour and with what motivates him on a day to day basis. Some who claimed such knowledge saw him as an ingrate who was rorting the system:

 I have a shop that he sits outside on a regular basis. The owner of the dairy next door gave him food which he then threw all over the ground outside my shop. He knows exactly what he was doing as he comes in to my shop and wants to borrow our pens to write his signs. His actions are completely calculated he does not eant food he only wants cash. He is completely ungrateful and very confronting.

Others with a degree of knowledge saw the same person differently:

So I’ve had food thrown at me by the same guy after I brought it for him. It’s fair to point out that since then I’ve learnt that he has severe mental health issues and is extremely picky about what he eats. I initially wanted to beat him up but after learning about him a bit I definitely wouldn’t. Apparently he’s a lovely guy.

It was interesting to me to see how knowledge about the man in the story became a kind of currency. The more we knew about him, perhaps the more we felt we could be justified in saying ‘yes, he deserves compassion’ or ‘no, he doesn’t deserve compassion’. Thus, we are entitled to judge if genuine need exists. Once we put ourselves in the position of judging the existence of need, we must inevitably find some worthy and others unworthy of help. How do we know what your needs are if you don’t show us enough good and sufficient evidence of it? The man in the story failed in this regard. Or succeeded – depending on your perspective, your values, your knowledge, your prejudices.

There is no point whatsoever in bemoaning these kinds of comments or beliefs. Quite literally, they are centuries old, and brought to New Zealand with European (mainly English) settlement. It started with the mainly (but not exclusively) Christian notion that we all have a duty to provide for the poor. Over time that duty became bureaucratized and formalized in charitable systems, and later social security systems that the religious aspect has faded from memory but the bureaucratic urge to judge deservingness has not. This belief that need must be shown before aid will be given is deeply engrained in the history and bureaucratic culture of this country. Neoliberalism only enhances this tendency, it certainly did not create it.

And why blame others for this judginess anyway when we all engage in this thought process? Think of our own experiences with those asking us for money, be they charity collectors, individuals on the street, or school fundraisers. In each case our internal decision-making processes spring from our own personal well of discretion, and are formed by our own internal values. Our private processes are pretty similar to millions of decisions being made all around the country by charity and government workers every year springing from their own official or informal discretion. Rules and regulations abound, but at the heart of government welfare and charities are individuals making judgments: help or not? Deserving or not? Right or wrong? Pay or not?

It is this drive to judge that justifies our intrusion into the lives of the people whom we would support, if only they are ‘genuine’. This drive to judge is also highly susceptible to our basest presumptions about the colour and culture of others. Māori and Pasifika are, by definition, poor and, in the minds of some, by definition, undeserving and morally and culturally suspect.

Our most sophisticated and yet intrusive manifestation of this drive is in our welfare system. It is primarily a needs-based system that eradicates differences between people. Assistance only depends on individuals showing sufficient need, and sufficient effort to meet it themselves first. Those responsible for delivering the aid are duty bound in law to investigate such claims of need.

While in criminal law there are buffers or protections put in place to protect the individual in that system from State intrusion except where criminal liability is proved, the welfare state creates the opposite effect.  In return for assistance the State has the right, increasingly so, to approve the actions, the household formations, the drug-taking behaviours, the social connections, the parental behaviours of beneficiaries. There is no buffer between the State and the person. All is justified in the pursuit of the demonstration of need.

There are a few treasured exceptions where individuals do not have to show they have reached the hallowed status of need. For example, in superannuation, need does not have to be shown, it is usually presumed once applicants reach the age of 65. As an aside, it always puzzles me how superannuitants are vocal in insisting that superannuation is not a benefit; that it is somehow quantitatively different in form and shape; that superannuation is an earned entitlement for taxes paid and lives well lived. Well. Maybe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but by law superannuation is defined as a benefit, it is administered as part of the benefit system, it is governed by the same review and appeal system, it forms part of the same item in the Crown Accounts. It is a walking and quacking benefit duck.

I am a great believer in the universality of Super, not least because for the majority of cases (not all), the State doesn’t get to hide under the bed, poke through the medicines on the bedside cabinet, and count the toothbrushes in the bathroom. I also happen to believe that universality is necessary to address child poverty in New Zealand; that children and their parents ought not have to show need; need should be presumed. Childhood, like old age is a hazardous state. We ought to take collective responsibility for it, and, in the language of Jess Berentson-Shaw, water the whole garden, not the just the bits we like better.

But even adding a universal child benefit to our existing system doesn’t change its fundamental nature. In a very real sense it doesn’t matter who the government is, it doesn’t matter how the labels on the benefits get changed around, the system remains, and the law around the use of discretion and entitlement stays largely the same. Of course, it matters in the immediate context because under National-led governments entitlements get squeezed, efficiency is valorised, and under Labour there is generally a lessening of a punitive approach and a loosening of work-testing requirements. But the primacy of need and the shape of the system (including the current Social Security Rewrite Bill before the House) remains unchallenged.

Changing the system requires a revolution in thought we are just not ready for yet. Or are we? I have blogged before about the possibility of Tūhoe creating their own welfare system, invoking a possible devolution of Crown liability for Tūhoe welfare. Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party are finally seeking to break the deadlock on welfare thinking with a policy proposal of a UBI (unconditional basic income) for the over 65 year olds and the families with young children. His broader thinking on this topic requires fundamental tax reform too. Revolution is not impossible. We can create a welfare system that doesn’t dehumanise real people and eradicate culture, relieves need, enables participation in our society, and doesn’t bankrupt us in the process.

There’s a scene near the beginning and at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. If you haven’t seen it, all you need to know is that this is a movie set in a post-Apocalyptic world. There are many lovely, boganistic and physically impossible car-causes and gory deaths. The movie is bookended with the same scene. The people who hold power in the citadel of this wasteland are in control of the only source of water. In the first scene, the nasty horrible tyrant releases a massive waterfall to his enslaved people to show he is in control. A petty water-hogging god. The cataracts of fresh water engulf the teeming, filthy, and parched crowd below, who fight each other to hold up their tiny basins and buckets up to catch just the merest dribble of the flow. At the end the same waterfall is released, only this time, by the good people, the ones who have taken over the corrupt system. In both scenes the huge flow run into sand and away from those who so clearly needed it. It made me think of the difficulty of creating true change in our welfare system. Changing the people in the citadel is not enough if the mechanism of allocation remains effectively the same.

A slightly edited version of this post first appeared on E-Tangata.

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