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On Labour’s Fudging On Child Poverty, And America’s Diplomatic Dance With Iran

If you want a good insight into what the limits of tiny, barely discernible steps to reduce poverty actually look like, delve into the latest Statistics Department figures on poverty in New Zealand Most of the nine measures utilised reveal little or no progress in combatting poverty over the 21 months to March 2020. For example :

In the year ended June 2020, about 1 in 7 New Zealand children (167,100) lived in households with less than 50 percent of the median equivalised disposable household income before deducting housing costs. This was slightly down from the 1 in 6 children (183,400) reported in the year ended June 2018.

One in six to one in seven in 21 months. Wowzah. You want other tiny, microscopic signs of change ? In the year ended June 2020, 208, 400 children (or about one in five) lived in households getting by on less than 50% of the median equivalent disposable income after deducting their housing costs. This marks a slight improvement, given that the percentage - 18.2% of households - is slightly better than the 22.8 percent of children that were living in the same conditions two years beforehand. What does this mean in practice for such families? It means they’re going without more than 6 of the 17 basic things that most people would regard as essentials. Such as :

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“Examples of essential items lacked include: the household respondent reporting serious restriction on eating fresh fruit or vegetables, putting off a visit to the doctor because of a lack of money, or not being able to pay the gas or electricity bill on time..”

Note that these figures to June 2020 do not capture the full blast of the Covid economic recession. This is worrying. Sure, as things stood annually to mid 2020, both of the Statistics Department main “material hardship” measures had decreased slightly overall, but the situation with respect to the low-income segment had remained relatively unchanged. Again, the improvements noted were barely discernible. In in the year ended June 2020, about 1 in 9 children lived in households reporting material hardship, down from about 1 in 8 in the year ended June 2018. Hold the champagne.

Is this really the transformational change we expect to see from the Ardern government, given how much political mileage it has got from claiming to care? Hardly. As the Child Poverty Action Group’s Professor Innes Asher has explained in this damning evaluation, the figures confirm the failure of offering only incremental responses to the problems of poverty. As she points out, low income households are not the only families being left behind. Maori, Pasifika and the disabled continue to suffer disproportionately from poverty, and from the life-long disadvantages that poverty brings in its wake:

Nearly one out of every five families living with disabilities live in material hardship, more than double the rate of families with no disabled members. "Discrimination is the reason why children who are disabled, or who have a disabled caregiver or sibling, are more likely to go without," says Professor Asher. "It doesn’t have to be this way, and it absolutely should not be this way. Other countries such as the UK acknowledge families with disabilities have greater expenses, and they support those families so they are no more likely to live in material hardship than others."

As CPAG acknowledges, the “one bright note” is the overall poverty picture is that the ratio of households in material poverty has declined slightly from 13.2% to 11%, a reduction in hardship benefiting about 24,000 children. This includes the reduction (from 22% to 19%) in Maori children living in material hardship, a reduction of some 11,000 tamariki Maori. Possibly, the Winter Energy payments and the expanded provision of free doctors visits to children under 14 have helped to produce this (slight, but genuinely welcome) improvement..

While such measures are better than nothing, stopping the damage still being done by poverty to so many New Zealand families requires a sweeping, co-ordinated set of policy responses. Yet most of the major recommendations made by the government’s own Welfare Expert Advisory Group are still sitting on the shelf. For its own ideological reasons based on party traditions, Labour continues to make a damaging distinction between the beneficiary poor, and the poor in paid employment. The beneficiary poor are shut out from the forms of assistance available via Working For Families. That’s why changing the abatement levels for waged earnings (before state support starts to be cut) is all but irrelevant to those people who for a variety of reasons, are not currently in the paid workforce.

Overnight, Labour could remove this pernicious distinction, and could use Working for Families as an efficient delivery system to those most in need. Overnight, it could raise benefit levels significantly, as its own panel of experts strongly recommended. By doing so, it could make genuine and deep inroads into poverty in this country. Voters gave Labour a sweeping mandate to pursue transformational solutions for this country’s most serious problems. Basically, Labour can’t hope to significantly reduce child poverty if it remains so gun shy about changing the economic structures that keep on generating it. Evidently, tinkering won’t be enough. As CPAGs Asher concludes:

“The Government needs to change its policy so that all low-income families with children are allowed to access all family assistance - currently our children in severest poverty are denied full access to key family assistance because their caregivers receive a benefit," says Professor Asher. "Benefits also need to be raised, and allowances for whānau with disabilities to be raised so that they’re no more likely to live in poverty than anyone else. Seven out of every ten New Zealanders want the Government to increase income support - these statistics show a significant increase is necessary in order to reduce child poverty."

Is the government listening? It doesn’t seem to be.

Kelvin Davis, serial offender

Talking about the need for leadership, it really is time to put Kelvin Davis out to pasture. Yesterday, Davis tried to divert the media away from his incompetent handling of the Corrections portfolio. Incredibly, Davis claimed that Emily Rakete’s prisoner support newsletter was inciting prisoners to riot by… You know, making them aware of their rights, and encouraging them into ways of working constructively with other agencies. Yep, that’s far more dangerous stuff than allowing – on your watch - women inmates at Auckland Prison to be systematically subjected to “inhumane and degrading” treatment. Reportedly, the newsletter has been referred to the Police. Good grief. Davis is beyond rehabilitation. He needs to go.

Playing Nuclear Chicken

If you were wanted to dance the diplomatic minuet currently being performed between the incoming Biden administration in Washington and the outgoing Rouhani government in Iran, it would look something like this

It involves a cautious circling with lots of small, sideways steps, and with no real contact taking place. Should a gentleman make the first move, or should he await a reliable signal from the lady, and crucially – who should be seen to be making the first move? Reputations are at stake. Plus, there are jealous suitors on the sidelines (Israel, Saudi Arabia) who are feeling vexed and worried that the embers of the Iran/US relationship may be flickering back into life.

In fact, Israel is so pissed off about the possible warming of ties between Teheran and Washington that Israel’s top general and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi threatened this week to dust off the old plans for a military attack on Iran. An infuriated Mossad boss Yossi Cohen slammed Kochavi for his comments, which came right on the eve of Cohen flying off to Washington to do some quiet lobbying on the subject of Iran.

The main barrier to reviving the Iran nuclear deal has been the question of who needs to be seen by the folks back home to be making the first move. Biden can’t afford to be seen as a pushover. Iran can’t afford to humiliate itself again, by looking eager. Sanctions aside, Iran brings recent grievances to the table. During the past 14 months, its most capable and popular political figure (Qassem Soleimani) and its leading nuclear scientist ( Mohsen Fakhrizadeh) have both been murdered by the forces and friends of the country now urging it to make further compromises.

Moreover, Iran had kept its side of the original bargain, and PM Hassan Rouhani spent a lot of his political capital in assuring the mullahs and the Iranian people that the Americans could be trusted, and that genuine trade benefits would ensue if Iran agreed not to militarise its nuclear energy programme. Then Trump came along, and ripped up the deal. Only the most extreme US hawks (eg John Bolton) and the most extreme Iranian hard-liners (who got to say “I told you so”) have welcomed the damage that Trump has done.

How to edge back from the brink? In recent weeks, as Fred Kaplan said in Slate, the diplomacy on both sides has looked like a scary game of chicken:

The Iranians are insisting that the U.S. lift sanctions before they stop enriching uranium; Biden and his team are insisting that Iran cut back on enriching uranium before they lift sanctions. It’s like a game of highway chicken where, at some point, the saner of the two drivers veers off the road to prevent a head-on collision. In the extreme version of this game, one of the drivers visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the other driver to pull over. For a while, the last few weeks, it has seemed as if both drivers—the Americans and the Iranians—have been unscrewing their steering wheels.

Most of Europe agrees with the Iranians that the Americans need to make the first move by scrapping the harsh economic sanctions that have (a) made everyday life a misery for ordinary Iranians (b) destroyed any credibility that the relatively liberal Rouhani government had with the Iranian public and (c) paved the way for hard-line conservatives to be voted into office at Iran’s next general election, due mid-year. There is only a small and vanishing window for making progress.

Regardless, things have seemed stuck at the face-saving level.. Covertly, the US appears to be inviting the Europeans (France, the UK, Germany) to broker a set of steps that the two countries could take simultaneously. That way, both could look resolute, and both could look conciliatory. Right now though, it is only the Europeans who are talking to the Americans. French President Emmanuel Macron had offered himself as an honest broker but Iran rejected Macron on principle as a mediator.

This week, the process of finding a formula for compromise got a shot of adrenalin when Iran announced that if there wasn’t movement, Iran would not renew its membership – due to expire on February 23rd - of the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferauon Treaty. Uh oh. This is the agreement that authorises the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the nuclear energy sites of member countries to verify their compliance with the NPT. The US talked tough. It claimed it would not be stampeded by the prospect of Iran’s withdrawal. In the nick of time, Iran blinked. It has conceded that the humiliating inspections by the IAEA could continue, but in an abbreviated form – a stance that once again, enabled Iran to look resolute and conciliatory at the same time. In effect, Iran’s last minute concession to the IAEA should remove the last real barrier to the US and Iran talking.

Why should New Zealanders care about this diplomatic dance ? For starters, a resumption of civility between the US and Iran would end some of the misery that ordinary Iranians have been experiencing, as described in horrible detail here. We have been an accomplice to that, by bowing to Trump’s threats. If the US does soon lift its economic sanctions, this would enable New Zealand to resume its $100 million plus annual meat and dairy trade with Iran, a trade that we agreed to scrap overnight a couple of years ago, lest we incur Trump’s imperial displeasure.

The big losers would be Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom have been loudly exaggerating Iran’s plans to disrupt the region., and its ability to do so. The last thing that Israel and the Saudis want would be to see Iran trading peacefully with the West. Cross fingers. It might yet happen.

Coyote serenades

Was talking with someone the other day about this clip. In case you haven’t seen it before, it captures Joni Mitchell at the height of her powers, singing her just-written song “Coyote” alongside Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn, in a room at Gordon Lightfoot’s house. The inspiration for “Coyote” – leaving aside Mitchell’s own genius – is said to have been the playwright/actor Sam Shepard.

Here’s another song about coyotes as metaphor. Werner Herzog featured this track in his documentary Grizzly Man. Among other things, the film showed just how badly things can turn out if you dare to go where the wild things are.

Here’s a cautionary environmental song about coyotes, written by the Native American songwriter Peter LaFarge, and sung by Pete Seeger. Johnny Cash could hardly look less interested in Seeger’s sermonising:

More on real coyotes. Reportedly, Sleater-Kinney’s “Light Rail Coyote” was inspired by a Portland news story about a coyote riding the city’s light rail transit system, but the lyric isn’t cute at all. It tells a dark story about being drawn by the city lights, but then finding out that the punk ghetto in Portland poses a threat to your will to live. With hindsight, this track was an early signal of the guitar heavy direction the band would pursue on The Woods.

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