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Child poverty and Lunchbox Day: philanthropy in New Zealand

Child poverty and Lunchbox Day: philanthropy in New Zealand

By Anne Russell
October 4, 2012

A spate of charitable giving related to food insecurity has sprung up recently. Several people—regular citizens, celebrities and politicians—took part in Live Below The Line, where participants had to spend only $2.25 on food every day. Sponsorship from the event could go to the following charities: Oxfam NZ, TEAR Fund, World Vision, UNICEF, P3 Foundation, VSA, The Global Poverty Project, and Christian World Service. More recently, Campbell Live has started up a charity called Lunchbox Day, where people can either txt to automatically donate $3, or contribute to other fundraising activities to ensure that children from decile 1-4 schools can have lunch. The operation is run through the established charity KidsCan.

It can be quite difficult to discuss and critique such charities in a way that doesn't challenge the intentions of the participants. Sometimes insisting on criticising structural problems before anything else can be used as an excuse to not donate, and indeed to do little else but pontificate. Alexander Cockburn pointed out that while Christopher Hitchens would gladly rage against Mother Teresa, he was always tight with beggars himself. As such, the defensive response to charity criticism is usually that it's all for a good cause, or that at least people are trying to make a difference. I have little doubt that Live Below The Line and Lunchbox Day were formed and participated in by people with good intentions. But the focus on emotions rather than structures throughout the whole debate is problematic. The point is not whether charity contributions are good or evil, but whether they are done consciously or unconsciously, with awareness of an issue's causes and possible remedies.

Consciousness of other humans' realities is unimaginably difficult to sustain and develop day in day out, but these charities are making it look like it's easy. An unfortunate theme runs through charitable projects of loudly congratulating the benefactors for being so thoughtful and aware. The 3 News website wrote that some Labour Party MPs were doing Live Below The Line "to see what it's like to live in poverty", as though going hungry for a week—while retaining adequate housing, electricity, transport, clothing, employment etc—could give one a prayer of even glimpsing the nuanced ongoing despair, anxiety and shame of poverty. The Campbell Live special on Lunchbox Day dedicated about ten seconds to mentioning children from decile 2 schools; the rest was about the middle class fundraisers, including businessmen in Auckland and private schools like Scots College. How fantastic of them to contribute! Right? But it won't play well on TV if people from developing communities express any emotion but sheer gratitude to the middle class for committing what is in fact little more than basic human decency.

This is part of a wider problem with our societal relationship with rich people. Trade union leader Helen Kelly pointed out at a public meeting how the relationship between New Zealand employers and employees has changed and worsened in recent years. Deregulation and union-busting has brought the workforce to a point where a) jobs are scarce due to bad economic policies and a skimpy public sector and so b) employees are supposed to be grateful for any job they get. Such obligatory servility makes it very hard to agitate for better conditions.

Perhaps, in an ideal world, citizens would be able to self-regulate enough to run their society entirely by charity in a gift economy, and no one would be deprived. But it has been clear for a long time that the wealthiest in our society tend to hang on to their money; poor people are in general more likely to give to charity than their rich counterparts. The areas of the brain which respond to winning and losing money are the same as those that respond to cocaine, explaining why gambling—or the stock market—is addictive. There are two sides to ending poverty; poor people need to be drawn out of it, and the rich need immediate intervention and rehabilitation.

While Lunchbox Day is careful to skirt around outright accusations (“whoever is to blame, it certainly isn't the children”), child poverty is not something that was always as inevitable as the slow crawling passage of time. However, the pertinent question is not so much who, but what is to blame for the emergence of child poverty. John Key The Individual is neutral in the effect he can have on the world; he's just an affable guy, as he might like to put it. However, John Key The Prime Minister is a different case. Likewise it's National Party The Government that allows big business to wreak havoc on the economy, worsening unemployment and welfare dependency, not National Party The Morris Dancers. Institutions are to blame for child poverty; the people who fill the respective roles—be it John Key or Helen Clark—can be blamed for their complicity in perpetuating them, but many if not most of the institutions in question will outlive their careers.

Unfortunately, systematic analysis doesn't make for good prime-time television. A picture may speak a thousand words, but it takes more than that to fully explain how life under capital affects us all, and how it has severe ramifications for child poverty. The process by which child poverty happens is best captured not by an explosion, but more like a minimalist film of drying paint. Finding the balance between these to create watchable television on the issue is difficult, but the upbeat applause for Lunchbox Day donors in the Campbell Live piece seems oddly out of place. Live Below The Line is even worse in this regard, with links telling potential donors "how to be awesome" although "being awesome probably comes naturally to you". Mirroring attitudes found in consumer culture, such charity starts to seem more and more like a vanity project.

Although having one's personal heartstrings pulled may make one notice an issue more, it doesn't guarantee an adequate response. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote "The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence…it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought…But [charitable] remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it."

Justice is called for here, not emotional identification. To enable justice may involve accepting emotions that are much less pleasant than the helplessness and gratitude expected from those to whom we donate. It may mean understanding why many poor people are bored, resentful and ungrateful for the meagre scraps from the wealthy. Again from Wilde: "Why should [the poor] be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board." Moreover, some poor people may have personal values—like any one else—that some of us find abhorrent and do not need or want to identify with; racist or sexist attitudes, for example. But the onus on us is not to like every underprivileged individual, or to personally identify with their experiences, but to help make the playing field even.

We use our imagination all the time for activism; this is why the anti-war movement doesn't require that people get killed before joining it. But charities such as Live Below The Line seem to want to discourage this imagination by desperately attempting to present poverty as something relatable to the middle class. Lunchbox Day doesn't have such attitudes built into it, but so far the presentation of it sure does. According to Campbell Live, Lunchbox Day was "a day for Kiwis to show just how generous they can be" and "reminded us that kindness makes you happy". I thought it was a day to start balancing scales of inequality and stop children from starving, but perhaps there should be a few more shots of white people buying charity coffee.

These charities are primarily dealing in two emotions: Isn't It Sad, and It's Fun To Make A Difference. But come now, it's not really that moving to see a man in a suit saying how terrible child poverty is. Presenting the distressing stories of poverty lets them speak for themselves; the initial Campbell Live piece about lunchbox differences in decile 1 and decile 10 schools, although flawed in its inconsistencies of the experiment, was dramatic journalism that hurt to watch.

That piece got closer to the truth; learning about poverty is anything but fun. It is important, and can be interesting and meaningful, but mostly it's just painful. Living in poverty itself is grinding, relentless and deeply boring. The reason to make a difference is not because it's fun, but because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. Both 'Isn't It Sad' and 'It's Fun To Make A Difference' express certain truths, but ultimately shy away from the gritty, unglamorous work of uncovering the causes of poverty.

Although this is sometimes mere negligence, many charities, including Lunchbox Day, seem to be actively anti-political. Riffing off a widespread sentiment that politics is just vindictive, petty arguing that accomplishes nothing—confusing politics with Parliament, in other words—many of the Campbell Live segments seem to advocate mucking in immediately without stopping for analysis. On some level this has a point; there is no good in sitting around arguing while the world burns. To his credit, John Campbell did say that "we know we're not solving whatever causes us to need this" (though one wonders why, with such extensive resources at his disposal, his programme did not focus on further investigation rather than fundraising events.) I draw the line, though, at agreeing with a fundraising woman who said, among other things, that "we can't blame the government".

Two important ways of thinking are missing from the Lunchbox Day and Live Below The Line dialogue: contemplation and systematic analysis of inequality, and absolute fury. As far as my personal emotions are relevant to this article, 'sad' doesn't feel like the right word. Child poverty makes me extremely angry, and then upset. I am furious that this society hems and haws over spending $4 million to ensure children aren't half-starved, while defence spending clocks in at a whopping $3.4 billion a year and one-off sports events receive $300 million. I am angry that cuts to both rich taxes and the public sector go on unchecked, and that banks who fail get $1.7 billion bailouts, while mass unemployment drives parents into deeper poverty yet shames them for taking the benefit rather than starving their children. I am angry that New Zealand builds non-insulated houses to match a Western form of family, causing overcrowding and poor health among minorities, and then uses racism to explain the poor outcomes. And I am angry that privileged people are using the media to air their own stories of Poverty Lite, rather than working out ways to bring the poor forward to speak for themselves.

One of few examples of well-done poverty tourism is that undertaken by Eric Blair. In 1928, after giving up his post with the police in Burma, Blair decided to go explore the slums; first as a kitchen hand in Paris, and then on the road and in the workhouses with the tramps in London. His experiences were chronicled in his first published essay, The Spike, and later in the book Down and Out in Paris and London. It was at that point when, not wanting to publish his experiences under his own name, he adopted the pseudonym George Orwell.

Although Orwell, who eventually wrote home asking for money and moved to better lodgings, was still ultimately only visiting Poverty Town rather than living in it, the attitude could not be more different from the presentation of charitable donors on Campbell Live. (Admittedly, if Orwell had grown up in a TV and internet culture the book would probably be different.) After getting as close to poverty as possible without living its cardinal tenet—that there is no quick way out—Orwell concluded that:

My story ends here. It is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless. Some days I want to explore that world more thoroughly....At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty.

Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

There is little sentimentality in the book; it is a fairly straightforward and effective portrayal of poverty. It runs counter to the rather irritating idea propagated by much of mainstream media: that New Zealanders don't want to hear about depressing things, and so bad news must be couched in feel-good lightness. Giving the people what they supposedly want in this manner is used as an excuse to not broadcast news that might make people deeply contemplative or even angry. This excludes a whole demographic of people who would love to see earnest and intellectual news shows that spoke furious truths to power. Although they have their own limitations, there is a reason that The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have become so popular. Even better, arguably, is The Rachel Maddow Show, which, unlike many talk shows, steps back and allows viewers to draw their own emotional conclusions after calmly presenting them with statistics and analysis. Anger is not always a negative, destructive emotion; when exercised intelligently with a focus on justice, inequality and oppression, it can be absolutely vital and exhilarating. Take for example Britpop band Pulp's best-known hit, the glorious Common People, where frontman Jarvis Cocker snarls the following at a rich girl slumming it for fun:

Still you'll never get it right
Cos when you're laying in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all, yeah

You'll never live like common people
You'll never do whatever common people do
Never fail like common people
Never watch your life slide out of view
And dance, and drink, and screw
Because there's nothing else to do.

I may yet donate to Lunchbox Day, although I have not yet found out how KidsCan operates (do they do developmental work so that recipients can be self-sustaining? Do they lobby the government for better conditions and employment? Do they sponsor individual children or communities as a whole? These are questions that I wish Campbell Live had answered, and which I may undertake to investigate in further research.) However, I take issue with the idea that ending poverty can or must be cheery and simplistic to ensure that people pitch in. Give me righteous anger at the rich, in-depth analysis of class, and Jarvis Cocker any day.


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