Do inequality and poverty matter?

A journalist’s list of the ten most important issues politically facing us did not mention inequality and poverty. Why?

A month ago Fairfax political journalist Tracey Watkins listed the following ten areas to watch out for in the political year:

Spies (especially the review and resulting legislation)

Iraq (will the two year mission be extended?)

Ship Visits (from the US?)

Polls (how they will develop)

Tax Cuts (although I thought they were promised for 2017)

Surplus (are we going to get another soon?)

Water (trying to get a compromise between Maori and general public claims)

TPPA (the debate)

Housing affordability (the implications of the Auckland market cooling)

Social services (the government’s promised shakeup)

There is no mention of inequality or poverty among the ten despite it being a major issue a year or so ago. Has it lost its puff? I am not arguing that the items on the list are unimportant. But the omission surprised me.

Now Watkin’s is just one journalist’s opinion – albeit a senior journalist of one of New Zealand’s main media groups. But the likelihood is that she discussed it with colleagues and even showed the piece around before it was posted. So it probably represents the overall consensus among her colleagues. Did not one of them say ‘How about inequality and poverty?’ (And perhaps a few other things.)

Significantly, such lists affect the way that some of those who form opinion are currently framing the public debate, although you might argue that the compilers are such butterflies that in a few months – or even days – their list will be different..

There is a more insidious possibility. The list may not just reflect the journalists’ views. They are continually interacting (interviewing and gossiping) with the politicians and advisers who inhabit parliament and the Beehive. A reasonable interpretation of the list is that it reflects the obsessions of those politicos about what they have to tackle over the next few months (or days). If so, inequality and poverty are not among their major obsessions.

It would be easy to say that the groups who formed the list are on above-average incomes and hardly in poverty, so that they have little personal interest in such topics. It is more complicated than that. First, in every case on the list there is a concerned government agency. That is not true to the same extent for poverty and inequality. There are some very good experts in some agencies but they are not at the top of the agency thinking. (What about the Ministry of Social Policy, you ask? Yes, they have some experts but as the list shows, their concerns are the (costs of) delivery of social services.)

Second, the journalists and advisers must have decided that those concerned with inequality and poverty have little impact on politics. True, there are some very active groups – especially in Auckland – but they are not getting much traction.

Those committed to the egalitarian society – which was once New Zealanders’ pride – need to ask why their concerns have so little effect. A possible explanation is that, despite the rhetoric, the rise in income inequality occurred over 20 years ago, largely as a result of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. I know many want to believe economic inequality is still rising in New Zealand, but the careful statistical work I have done shows little change in the distribution of market incomes in the last thirty years, and the big changes in after-tax incomes were about a quarter of a century ago.

This is not to contradict the findings of Piketty and all. The evidence is that the surge in top incomes and wealth has occurred where there has been a sophisticated financial sector such as in Britain and the US. Ours is plain vanilla; the top incomes it pays contribute to overall inequality but they do not seem to have been increasing faster than average – or not enough to show in the data.

Now it is very easy to say something like ‘we have had this inequality for over 25 years and society has not fallen apart, so why worry?’ The implicit message is that the poor are not a large enough part of society or not angry enough to rise up in wrath.. (My view is that if the poor are mainly children and their parents, the former don’t make good crusaders and the latter are too busy trying to cope with family pressures to man and woman the barricades.) In any case the complacent message from the list of ten is why worry about distributional issues (tax cuts for the well-off aside)? Things are going fine, aren’t they?

So should we worry about inequality other than as some sort of moral concern (it is certainly proper to have one) or a nostalgia for a past when things were more egalitarian? But there are also long term consequences of poverty, the companion of inequality which may not be immediately apparent but which is threatening the viability of the nation.

Today’s children of the poor have less opportunity than their fellow children and possibly less than their parents and grandparents had. I could write at length how this undermines the skill acquisition and citizenship which are necessary for a sustainable New Zealand (and how it adds to a health deficit). But instead, let me remind you that New Zealand was once a society of opportunity for just about everyone (women and Maori aside – we are doing better there). That may no longer be true. Is that what we want?