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Gordon Campbell on Judith Collins, crime and poverty

Usually, populism is associated with Winston Peters and his regular tweakings of community prejudice about race and immigration. Just as predictably, Police Minister Judith Collins engages in the same process of liberal baiting. It is just the way that a certain brand of politics gets done. Law’n’order and the criminal poor have always been a reliable source of public concern. Not that Collins is much interested in the difficult, time consuming process of identifying the causes of crime and devising solutions. Trolling the electorate is much easier, and generates far bigger dollops of personal publicity.

Collins made her dismissive comments about the links between poverty and crime in response to a question from the floor at yesterday’s Police Association annual conference.'

Ms Collins was challenged at the Police Association's annual conference in Wellington today by a delegate, who said poverty was making law enforcement harder.

The delegate said his officers had been very busy with gangs, which he said were often filled with people who had experienced poverty as children.

Not her problem. Collins replied :

"I see a poverty of ideas, a poverty of parental responsibility, a poverty of love, a poverty of caring."As the MP for Papakura, she saw a lot of those problems in south Auckland, she said. "And I can tell you it is not just a lack of money, it is primarily a lack of responsibility….In New Zealand, there was money available to everyone who needed it, she said. It's not that, it's people who don't look after their children, that's the problem.

"And they can't look after their children in many cases because they don't know how to look after their children or even think they should look after their children. I know that is not PC, but, you know, that's me."

Yep. That’s Judith. Not PC. Fearlessly blaming the poor for their lot. In fact she is very cleverly blaming only some of the poor – the criminal few. Most poor people are law abiding, despite the grinding effect that poverty exerts day in, year out - and the way that it blights lives and opportunity, intergenerationally. Most parents, rich or poor, love their kids and will make sacrifices for them. Only a relative minority of people resort to crime. Unfortunately, those on the centre-left who decry the impact of income inequality and poverty can easily overlook the efforts of the virtuous poor, who are – often – the immediate victims of the criminal minority, and may well resent being tarred with the same brush.

Paradoxically then, that’s why Collins’ message could well be welcomed in parts of south Auckland. To the poor but honest majority, Collins may seem to be on their side. Her remarks will also be embraced by the older, New Zeakland First crowd who like to hark back to the poor-but-honest days of their parents. In fact, the poverty of 2016 is vastly different in nature and effect from the poverty of the 1950s and 1960s, a golden time when jobs were plentiful and social mobility really was society’s reward for hard work. However, the jobs - in manufacturing in particular – that once provided an escape route from poverty have now largely disappeared. Social mobility is less likely, today. Collins knows this. Cynically, she chooses to live in denial and – in her desire to blame the poor for their plight - she has over egged her claim that the social welfare net currently provides an income that’s adequate for everyone. That’s a ridiculous, deeply offensive claim.

So…it is infuriating to have to explain to a senior Cabinet Minister about the social harm caused by endemic poverty, but here are a few useful pointers for Collins :

There is a higher rate of mental illness in the poor than in the rich. Poverty can lead to high levels of stress that in turn may lead individuals to commit theft, robbery, or other violent acts. Moreover, poverty may lead to an actual or perceived inferior education, which would cause youth to count on less access to quality schools, jobs, and role models, decreasing the opportunity costs of crime and increasing the probability of youth spending time on the street associating with gangs.

One could go on. None of this means that being poor is a “get out of jail free” card. No one – not even the most woolly jumpered liberal – says that. No one claims that poverty provides an absolution for criminal acts. Yet to fearlessly leap to the opposite conclusion as Collins has done – and claim that everyone in New Zealand, every current beneficiary, is receiving an income that enables them to live adequately, is bizarre. Can Collins be so devoid of imagination that she cannot appreciate what it might feel like to look at your children and know in your bones that this country is happy to systematically deny them the opportunities for education, employment and chances of happiness that other kids across town automatically receive, merely by the accidents of birth? That’s enough to make anyone angry.

Sure, some people will channel that anger into a drive to escape the shackles of poverty and a few even make it out, or at least their children might. On the other hand, a relative minority will succumb to that anger and lash out – in socially destructive and self-destructive ways – at the forces that perpetuate poverty. Those that do pay the price.

Collins would prefer to (a) force the poor to continue to display superhuman patience and resilience and (b) bring the full force of the state down on the criminal poor. There is a third option, if society really wants to rid itself of the cancer of poverty. We could, for starters, try to reduce poverty (and eliminate child poverty altogether) by running an economy in a way that promotes employment, advocates for adequate wages and benefits, builds affordable housing etc etc.

Yet it is hard to see that option being embraced by a government that seems more than happy to live in denial. It denies there is a housing crisis. It believes it impossible to measure the extent of child poverty. Now – courtesy of Judith Collins – it seems willing to deny that poverty exists at all. Or, if it does, that there is any link between poverty and crime that’s worth worrying about. That’s Judith. Fearlessly living in denial.

The Vent

The effects of poverty – and the impulse to escape it – have been a driver of black music from soul to reggae to hip hop. This classic song by Big K.R.I.T doesn’t claim to be the best, but it does convey something of the effort and the intergenerational sadness involved in making the effort, day by day, to rise above …

I put my problems in a box beside my tightest rhymes
Under lock and key, buried deep off in my mind
And when it gets too full and I can't close the lid
I spaz on my family and my closest friends
Trade my materials for a peace of mind
I am so close to heaven, hell, I just need some time
Who cares about life and the highs and lows
Maybe I should write another song about pimps and hoes
Cars and clothes, idol gods, golden calves, Louis scarves
I do this for the love and it’s free of charge
I don’t need jail to be behind bars

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