Posts Tagged ‘equity’

So, unless you’ve been living under a rock, or are from outside our fine country of Aotearoa New Zealand, you’ve probably heard a lot about the Living Wage recently, given some pretty exciting advocacy that’s going on for it, especially in the context of a measly 25c raise to the minimum wage in a country where productivity has still risen higher than wages have. (ie. we are getting underpaid for the same amount of work, when compared to our parents and grandparents at our ages) And that’s not even mentioning the government’s stone-hearted ambitions for a low-wage economy, with an anemic minimum wage.

A lot of the media coverage has focused on the difficulties of implementing a living wage for businesses that currently pay near the minimum wage for some workers. While it is reasonable to feature the challenges for employers, these complaints should not recieve the amount of coverage they have, as they’re really not relevant as the short-term challenges will go away when the stimulative effect of higher wages hits the economy as a whole in the form of increased purchases and tax revenues. (again and again, economists that study real data as opposed to models have shown us that putting money into the pockets of people with low wages is the best way to grow the economy, because they will actually spend that money because they have a lot of unmet needs and wants) There has been roughly equal coverage on these difficulties and the novel (to the press, and to people working in service industries, by and large) concept of being paid enough to take time off for family, or to be able to afford say, library fees, on top of rent and food for yourself and your family, if you support one.

Like many people probably will, I had a pang of insecurity about this news- I’m not paid that much more than the living wage myself, and I’m working in a very high-stress environment where I’m held accountable if I make any errors and yet still expected to deliver to a high standard on both quality and volume. But that doesn’t mean that people who are paid less than me now don’t deserve a raise- it probably just means I deserve one too, but that the market is broken and not set up to pay fair wages to people like me or more especially to people on the minimum wage.

We’re so eminently class-conscious, so afraid of this right-wing boogeyman of class war against the wealthy, (and by extension: those less-worthy people catching up to US, putting US on the bottom of the heap- as if the people on the bottom don’t deserve a fair go, too) that the people campaigning for higher wages aren’t talking about owning anything significant, about the equity in earning enough that you can reasonably afford the sorts of services you provide to other people, but rather that we’re merely talking about access to basic services, food, and rent. Granted, some trolls will think that say, internet is not a “basic service”,  but that’s getting into the territory of saying that you don’t deserve a microwave, or a freezer, because you’re a labourer rather than, say, a computer programmer or insurance analyst. Some of these services sound fancy when you consider the high-end uses of them, but we’re literally talking about entry-level internet here. Dialup if you’re in a city, or internet at all if you’re out in a relatively rural area. Being able to email your parents, or actually check wikipedia if you don’t understand something, or look up an obscure word quickly using an online dictionary, being able to request government forms online instead of waiting on hold.

We are setting our sights so low that the actual pushback against people who support the trends in our society of the median wage being more than twice the average wage1,  10% of the population owning a majority of the wealth in our country is literally as meagre and eminently reasonable as “please pay us enough that we can both have kids and afford to read or surf the net in our miniscule spare time”. Some elements of corporate culture have gotten so ridiculous that we ought to be pushing back against things like highly vertical workplace hierarchies, (which are a machine for bullying people, even if that bullying is only restricted to accepting unfairly low wages) executives getting paid more than their actual value to the organisation, and a demotivatingly high amount compared to on-the-ground workers, and we should be saying that we should get paid enough to save for a house, to pay off our student loans within a decade, to be able to save to travel. Those are actually ambitious goals for wages where there is some room to debate about the reasonability of everyone being able to afford those things. It’s ridiculous that to even get coverage about low wages we have to point out that some people are literally not paid enough to live a decent life.

While I’m anything but a labour activist, this quite clearly makes the case for unions in my mind- there needs to be an independent force that can exert some further upwards pressure for ordinary people’s wages, once we get everyone paying a living wage. This campaign is excessively reasonable, and there’s no way to argue against it without sounding like a buffoon or a heartless Scrooge. I want more than a living wage, and I think any skilled worker should be earning dollars more.

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There has been some discussion recently about the drivers of poverty, and I thought it would be useful to reproduce some important things I’ve said in comments on this blog.

mickysavage said this over at The Standard:

I use the phrase [equity of outcome] as a counter to the Nats’ “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” line.  That is a phrase that Nikki Kaye for instance uses all the time.

Their line essentially says that there can be winners and losers.  The concept of “equity of outcome” suggests to me there should be some minimum standards required so everyone has enough.  It does not require complete equality but a reasonable distribution of income and resources.

And he’s right, it’s really not permissible to just leave our economy at the harsh and intolerable level of “well, some people are winners, and others are losers,” because often, “winners” didn’t do anything to merit winning, and “losers” didn’t make the decisions responsible for their poverty. Here’s my reply:

Besides, to some degree inequality of outcome is an indicator of inequality of opportunity- for instance, if people of different demographics really do have functionally equal opportunity, you’d expect the differences in poverty rates between those demographics to be statistically negligible. As that’s not the case, we have a very strong indicator that people who fall into privileged groups in our society really do have more and better opportunities, which isn’t very democratic.

Now, if said inequality actually made everyone better off, I don’t think we’d have a problem with it. But it doesn’t- it just seems to enrich the already wealthy, as seen by our ballooning wealth disparities all around the world.

There is a systemic problem here, and it’s happening in all capitalist economies. Likely it’s our attempts to mix familial policies with capitalist ones (inheritance, treating kids as individual charges not community ones, etc…) that are driving a lot of this problem- that doesn’t mean these are bad things to do, just that they do not mix well with capitalism if you want everyone to get a fair go.

The other post, which was also guest-posted in a shorter form at The Standard, claims that because negative indicators track with poverty, this is a problem of poverty, not of race. That misses the point that poverty is an intersectional issue- that is, it tangles itself up in other social problems, and is better seen not as a cause or symptom but as part of a reinforcing cycle- way back in the day, colonial New Zealanders did some racist things, that set off a self-reinforcing cycle of racism and disproportionate poverty. Even for Maori people who climb out of poverty, there’s the perception that they are exceptional, rather than just very skilled and fortunate, and likely to have been in a much better situation had they been born into a family that suffered less from discrimination. Breaking out of poverty while so many still remain in it only suppresses the poverty part of the cycle, which is still reinforced for other Maori, and still associated mentally with all Maori in so many people’s heads.

Even if we eliminate poverty altogether, there will still be racial discrimination, and it will still carry some of the same symptoms. Just like when we largely ended open discrimination, however, the discrimination would still exist, underground, in our subconscious decisions- both of the victims of discrimination to sometimes see themselves as less than, and in the actions of people who want to reinforce that idea. Here’s the comment I made in reply to this point:

Poverty is a huge part of the problem- racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination are much easier to deal with when they don’t intersect with poverty.

But it’s actually scientifically confirmed (using tests that measure stress) that lifting people out of poverty doesn’t always relieve the stress they feel from discrimination. For example, if you take a white woman and a black woman in the USA, and they both climb out of poverty, the white woman will feel a relief of the stress that she felt from being poor, but the black woman won’t- which is likely to be due to people engaging in what’s called “high-stakes coping”, where they try and power through the problem by just being that much better than everyone else.

I’m not very elegant at explaining why poverty doesn’t explain away racism yet, but you can hear excellent talks on that subject at http://www.timwise.org/ – he’s a great anti-racism advocate.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support fighting poverty, (and prioritising that fight) but what we’re likely to find even if we largely eliminate poverty is that discrimination still happens, but it might be a bit easier to deal with, and many of the related statistical problems will likely shrink significantly.

Finally, there’s also some discussion as to the drivers of poverty and whether it’s relatively simple or difficult to eliminate. I come down on the difficult side, as evidenced by this comment:

Well if we’re going to reduce things to absurd simplicity, throwing money at poor people solves poverty if you throw enough of it. By definition it cures their poverty (or if you throw too many sacks of coins it kills them – but they won’t die poor).

But then if you don’t want to be simplistic, it still needs money – social workers, benefits, law enforcement, education, infrastructure, civic development, business development units, investors. It all needs money.

and my reply elaborating on that point:

Well, perhaps it cures their poverty. This is going to sound similar to some beneficiary-bashing stuff, but I don’t mean it to demonise the poor, I mean it to say that the problem isn’t quite that simple to solve. In some ways poverty is actually quite similar to coping with mental illness.

You have to remember that part of what causes poverty is that it creates perverse incentives that perpetuate it. (hence the comparison) For instance you can’t afford healthy food, so you buy whatever’s cheapest, which is often junk food from large corporations that leaves you not much better off than before you ate or drank it, which can make it hard to concentrate because your body isn’t getting what it needs, which makes it hard to stay calm or make good decisions, which might mean you miss opportunities to improve your life in all sorts of subtle ways.

Even if we directly redistribute wealth with an aim to reduce poverty, these reinforcing behaviors don’t instantly go away- much like when someone wins the lotto, it depends on their outlook whether they’ll blow the money in a couple of years, or use it carefully and wisely. We’d certainly bump a lot of people directly out of poverty, but some would need a different kind of help, because, to use my earlier example, they’d still think that Coke is what you drink, and junk food is what you eat.

Many of the things you listed couch that investment in a secondary force that helps break poverty-reinforcing behavior- education and infrastructure being the key examples, but sometimes social workers, benefits, and law enforcement can be very helpful, too. I don’t really have much faith in business or investors to do anything about poverty unless they’re getting tax incentives to do it, and even then they’ll try to cut corners.

Fighting poverty is such a crucial piece of improving our society, that it’s a shame that people have so much difficulty understanding the nature of the problem. Having suffered from a different, but nonetheless equally self-reinforcing problem, I very much understand that it’s an incredibly difficult thing to defeat, it requires a lot of support, and even afterwards, these types of problems never fully leave you, you just shrink them to the point that they’re easy enough to cope with.