State tenant subsidies, stigma and spirit

Stigma against state tenants is perpetuated when journalists fail to get the facts right

There has been welcome attention in recent days on the stigma attached to being a beneficiary in New Zealand. As Catriona McLennan explained in the Herald, beneficiaries are discriminated against, and their fraud is disproportionately punished. She cites UK research showing that distorted media coverage of benefit issues results in distorted public perceptions: people imagine that 27% of the social security budget is claimed fraudulently, when the actual figure is 0.7%.

New Zealand media coverage of state housing can equally distort the issues and perpetuate stigma. An article in last month's Herald shows us, in just two sentences, just how dangerous these inaccuracies can be. 

This particular article, by Simon Collins, provided much insight into Waimahia, a housing development financed by government and run by Maori entities and community housing providers, which includes some low-income housing.

One particular paragraph, however, stands out in the otherwise informative article:

"The system has entrenched a poverty of spirit, only partly offset by a widespread culture of cheating. And the cost to taxpayers of housing subsidies alone has reached almost $2 billion a year." 

Given that Collins’ previous paragraph is about welfare and state housing, we can only assume he is referring to the state housing system. If so, he's wrong on all three counts. 

Collins’ first mistake is the reference to a system costing “almost $2 billion”. Actually, just $662 million is allocated to subsidising income related rents for eligible tenants in the 2013 Budget. Perhaps Collins refers in fact to the accommodation supplement, which was allotted almost $2 billion in that Budget [pdf, p.251]. The government pays the accommodation supplement to private renters to help them pay their rent to landlords, as wages are simply not high enough for many people to afford market rent. This is a massive expenditure, but it is something quite separate from the state housing system.

Housing people in good quality state housing actually saves the taxpayer money. Research shows [pdf] that the longer people live in state housing, the less likely they are to access the health system. In contrast, children in poor quality private rental housing repeatedly visit the emergency ward [pdf, p.11] with respiratory health problems at huge expense to our health system.

The fairness of subsidising state tenants should be considered also alongside ways in which government policies and our tax system privilege the needs of home-owners, who, for example, are not subject to a capital gains tax.

Perhaps even more worrying than Collins’ misleading statements on government expenditure is his reference to the “widespread culture of cheating”, presumably among state tenants. In fact, Housing NZ's fraud unit ended 292 tenancies as a result of fraud or criminal behaviour last year. This is 0.4% of the total 69,000 tenancies. Clearly, cheating is spread very narrowly.

Referring to state tenants as possessing a “poverty of spirit” is just as unfair. There are 200,000 people that have not been asked about the richness or otherwise of their spirit. What we do know is that a Housing NZ survey showed [pdf, p.10] that 85% of tenants feel more in control of their lives since entering state housing. The words of one state tenant, recorded in a Housing NZ report [pdf, p.4], are worth recalling:

“We now live in healthy, warm and sustainable homes, which is great for our kids. Our children now walk 10 feet tall.” 

Poverty of spirit, indeed. Rather than reporting the facts, Collins is letting myths get in the way.