Ears on the Wall Syndrome: A fish a day...or...to fish for a lifetime?

13 September 2012

One of the advantages of studying other world religions is not only has it enriched my mind and outlook of the world, it has also enhanced and deepened my understanding of my own Christian faith and how to deal with life’s many problems.

Dr Featuna'i Liua'ana and author of Ears on the Wall syndrome

Dr Featuna’i Liua’ana

I was fascinated by all the world’s religions; but I had a soft spot for Chinese religion, especially Taoism (pronounced as Daoism). Its founder, Lao Tzu or Laozi, emphasised living in harmony with the Tao, which not only means ‘way’ or ‘path’, but also a ‘principle’ that denotes something that is both the source and force that keeps everything in existence. I have been reminded of Lao Tzu lately because of the recent debate on child poverty.

Lao Tzu in his time saw and experienced poverty, and had seen the disadvantages of people depending on the grace of others to better their lives. Lao Tzu told his followers, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

I believe whatever actions taken to lessen child poverty are actions that show we do not tolerate any form of poverty in our society. It is refreshing, therefore, that our politicians are finally debating a worthwhile issue that does not affect only a few but affects the whole nation. I applaud the stance taken by the Labour Party and the Green Party in trying to end, or at least decrease, child poverty in New Zealand. I also applaud the efforts of the many schools around New Zealand and charity organisations such as KidsCan, who provide lunches for many children who go without. These are, as some would say, the good Samaritans; these are the people who, in their immediate actions, have made child poverty a priority over and above other issues at hand.

In the political arena, the Labour Party plans to spend about $10 million to provide free food to all students in the low-decile schools. The Green Party on the other hand support a universal child payment and have introduced a member’s bill which proposes to make the In-Work Tax Credit available to all New Zealand parents, workers and beneficiaries, putting an extra $60-$90 a week in the pockets of those who do not yet receive the tax credit. A step they say will alleviate child poverty. The Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand (LWANZ) campaign has also asked the government to provide an income to each family to obtain the basic necessities of life. These are all positive efforts.

But, despite these intentions, there seems to be a ‘that’s a great idea but’ cloud casting shadows over the suggested solutions to rectify child poverty in New Zealand. Firstly, the government has categorically rejected all the latest proposals to curb child poverty because there is just not enough money to fund such initiatives. John Key and his colleagues in government have stuck to their economic policies as the only solution to getting all New Zealanders back to prosperity. And we have seen in recent months these great policies at work, which included trying to sell state assets, taking away welfare from the poor and poverty stricken families, raising rents for state houses with less accommodations being made available, increasing unemployment, pushing New Zealanders across the ditch to our Aussie cousins, drug testing the poor and unemployed, taking away benefits from people with outstanding arrest warrants, taking away benefits from parents who do not send their children to school, taking away benefits for failing to attend a job interview, promoting higher classroom numbers to make learning harder for children from low income and poor families, initiating Charter Schools to discourage children of low income families to pursue tertiary education, and the list goes on.

John Key believes his government’s policies, together with the targets they have set to reduce welfare dependency, will improve health and employment, and reduce crime; are the answers to alleviate poverty and get New Zealand back to riches. Are you kidding me? I don’t think I am blind but these policies are not working, and certainly it won’t work in tackling child poverty. All I see in these policies is the government making the poor poorer to fund programmes that the rich would benefit from the most. If the idea is for Paula Bennett to save money from cutting welfare from those already poor, to help the poor, then John Key and company need to show they are truly sincere in this respect. For instance, David Shearer has pointed out that last year John Key and the government gave $500,000 to fund sport for private schools (private schools are usually for the rich), but a megre $317,000 to help the many groups providing food in low decile schools. I think the government policy makers need to go back to the drawing board and construct a solution to poverty by starting with the statement: ‘Welfare dependency, bad health, unemployment, and increase criminal activities, happens when people live in poverty”.

Society’s problems should not be the focal point of any solution. We should target directly the people in our society who cause the problems. And that is why our priority is to alleviate poverty because when that is solved then all the other problems will fall away. If we continue with current policies, the number of children living in poverty will continue to rise and the all too familiar adage of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer returns to incite further destructive social behaviour; something we can no longer afford as a nation. The most unfortunate thing about politics is not having the courage to admit one has erred. Instead, when one errs, one usually tries to play hardball and show arrogance in defiance to criticism and practical advice, as one covers up or tries to correct the blunder within the same framework of ideas, advice, and wisdom that had shaped the original faults. In the end, the hole is deeper and one finds it difficult to climb out of it; preferring to be buried alive with one’s own pride.

The debate on who has the best policies in tackling child poverty will continue for years to come; but for now debating is not the priority but tackling child poverty, as one newspaper headline last week says: Stop debating and feed the kids…and I agree wholeheartedly. The question is, however, how do we do it? Do we follow the policies and suggestions of John Key, David Shearer, Metiria Turei and Russell Norman, or do we adopt the Children Commissioner’s recommendations? Here, I want to add my one cent donation to the discussion. I would also like to point out that my views from this point onward are based solely on my relationships and knowledge of my own Pacific Island communities; but I hope it will contribute to a solution for child poverty in New Zealand.

I believe it is a priority to eradicate child poverty. But, cutting welfare from those who are already scraping the bottom of the pots is not the answer; whether they be wanted on arrest warrants, have failed to take a drug test, have failed to register and take their children to pre-school and early primary school, whether they have failed to find a job within a specific time, or whether they are unemployed or solo parents. Many of these people have children already living in poverty, and taking welfare for a wrong the children had not done to society would ultimately be a punishment for a child in poverty. I support the push for a living wage, because it is something that can help provide the basic needs for each family; that is a basic starting point to alleviating poverty. When that is in place, then spend money on educating families on transforming family lifestyles.

I have my own thoughts on how to proceed with such education, but space does not allow me to elaborate. But, I strongly stress education as the key to curbing poverty, and I am not talking about academic education here, but educating parents and families on lifestyle transformation, which touches also on family value transformation, personal worth transformation, parental responsibility transformation, gambling, alcohol and drugs usage transformation, and so forth. When I look at the children lining up for food at schools, and only see Maori and Pacific Islanders, that tells me some aspects of Pacific Islanders’ lifestyles need to be transformed radically and immediately.

Lifestyle transformations include a good look at Pacific Islanders’ pride, and how pride has inhibited many people from lifestyle transformations that would have helped alleviate child poverty and other issues. I want to see money spent in curbing child poverty but not into a programme that would continue the present ‘dependence lifestyle’ syndrome that many Pacific Islanders have grown up to know and infused into their DNA. I agree that a well-fed child do better in school, but I also think to continue to spoon-feed the young generations that have been borne out of the mind-set of previous generations of ‘dependence lifestyle’ is dangerous, especially when the proposal to feed the children ends when they finish school. What happens in the afterlife? This ‘dependence lifestyle’ syndrome is passed on from parents to their children, and is enhanced and cultivated within the extended family circle that idolised the Mitre 10 maxim “Big is Beautiful.”

We see this ‘dependency lifestyle’ syndrome with families in Samoa depending on families in New Zealand for financial support and that does not help with the financial situation of the families here in New Zealand, especially when families in New Zealand have their own financial commitments to their extended families and to their churches; and this is one area of lifestyle transformation that really needs to be tackled through education. And here, may I add, the Pacific Island churches and their communities need to revisit their own lifestyle and take any action that would bring about lifestyle transformation, which would alleviate poverty. The suggestion by Professor Winsome Parnell of Otago University that “government should be making sure families can afford to feed their children themselves” is the way to go, because it also keeps the parents in the loop and not diminish any of their parental responsibilities.

‘Dependence lifestyle’ syndrome is no different from drug, alcohol, and gambling, dependence – it is addictive if you do not find help. In order to eradicate poverty, there is a need to start with those living in poverty; not necessarily providing free meals, but providing help to transform their craving for a free meal, to be able to prepare and eat their own meals. “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

This will only happen with support from the government with a basic income to provide for all basic needs initially, and then move on to transform their dependence lifestyles through education. But, as I have advocated many times before, if your situation is not conducive to your family and children’s welfare, find greener pastures. Never be satisfied or give in to the failures of others, or accept your current status as fate. Never lose faith in your ability to initiate life-saving transformations. And remember, no New Zealander should ever live in poverty, especially our children. So, continue to seek the peace and prosperity of this country to which God has given us to dwell. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper


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