Hehir on poverty and crime


Last week, reaffirmed her status as the great bogeywoman of the chattering classes by offering her opinion that is not caused by .

The backlash against the Police Minister was swift and inevitable. Anti-poverty campaigners condemned her, the opposition denounced her and almost every news story on the subject carried the assumption that she had said something deeply controversial and offensive.

And yet what Judith Collins said would be met with agreement – to one degree or another – by the vast majority of New Zealanders. After all, we are constantly told that there are an awful lot of people growing up in poverty and only a small percentage of them wind up hardened criminals.

I don’t think poverty causes crime. I think crime infested households tend to bring up criminals. But even then it is not an absolute – John Banks being a good example of someone who broke free.

The overt tone of disgust that characterised the reaction to Collins’ comments will only reinforce the perception that the Left is wedded to the idea that certain groups are controlled by their environment and so cannot be held responsible for their actions.

Even free choice is not seen as a factor, as some on the left argue that whether people made good or bad choices is programmed into them by their environment.

I worked at a supermarket through most of my studies. One of my tasks was to process emergency food grants from WINZ, which before being accepted for payment had to be manually approved by a supervisor. As part of this you had to check that no alcohol of tobacco was being purchased with the grant. Beyond that, however, there were few restrictions on what foodstuffs could be brought.

From memory, the typical grant was in the order of $140, which if you’re hard up can be stretched a long way when it comes to buying food. Eight dollars, for example, can easily buy you a kilogram of nutritious brown rice and a kilogram of frozen vegetables. Together, these can form the basis of 10 filling meals.

Or, it can buy you a large bottle of Coke and packet of chips. If you want to know which combinations went through more often, try asking anybody who has ever worked a supermarket till.

I think we can guess!

Checkout operators would be polite and courteous with these customers, of course. Nevertheless, nobody ever got rich as a supermarket employee and I know it was grating for many workers who carefully budgeted their pay to process such imprudent transactions. It wasn’t uncommon to hear grumbling at tea breaks about how such grants should be limited to the purchase of actual staples.

But the problem is that this would be a backwards step. If someone reaches adulthood and you still can’t figure out that the limited emergency relief available to them should not be wasted on expensive junk food, then they have problems that go beyond money. Treating them like a child by taking away their right to choose their food won’t help fight their way out of dependence – it will only reinforce their sense of helplessness.

Also it can set up a black market where people will but the allowable food, and trade it for the food they really want.

One person with more experience with the underclass than your typical metropolitan liberal is Theodore Dalrymple, a retired British prison psychiatrist. His book Life at the Bottom is a sobering collection of essays about those he treated over the years. One of the book’s persistent themes was the manner in which so many of his inmate patients were trapped in a reflexive rationalisation of the terrible things they had done to other people.

According to Dalrymple, the dogmatic insistence that poverty causes crime reinforces the idea that those in the underclass are passive beings with no capacity to exert control over their lives. It is to deny them the moral agency that goes to the core of our humanity. Quite simply, it is to treat them like animals.

If you actually look at what Collins said, it looks like this is what she was getting at. By refusing to agree that poverty drives people into crime, she was affirming the capacity that all people have to live an honourable life and to raise decent children – no matter their social class. And even if you hate Judith Collins, you cannot deny she is right about that.

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