Poverty is one of society’s burning issues, and its consequences are particularly keenly felt in a country like New Zealand, where many people are still shocked by visible signs of poverty such as street homelessness.
At times it can seem intractable. But Professor Darrin Hodgetts of Massey’s School of Psychology senses a sea change. ‘We’ve had a shift in society and people are more open to trying to do something about poverty. That means we have to change tack in our research and move to solutions. We’re readjusting our focus to find out what needs to be done to put a dent in what’s a growing problem.
‘A lot of our work over the last twenty years has been myth busting, around what it is really like to be in poverty, particularly with increasingly punitive systems. I work in the area of urban poverty and homelessness, and we’ve had some really disparaging framing of people who are of more modest means.’
In 2016 Professor Hodgetts, Professor Stuart Carr and colleagues established the Ending Poverty and Inequality Research Cluster (EPIC), which investigates poverty reduction. One of EPIC’s initiatives is the Global Living Organisation Wage Network (GLOW), a group of researchers working on the concept of a living wage. Most people in poverty are actually working, but the minimum wage is now too low to survive on. ‘These are people who are working often two jobs, often a huge amount of hours, and they’re just scraping by, or they’re going into debt,’ says Professor Hodgetts. By contrast, the living wage is set at a level where people can pay living costs and participate in society. In 2018, members of EPIC, including colleagues from Massey’s Faculty of Management, secured a large Marsden Fund project to explore the introduction of living wages across a range of organisational case studies.
This team is also developing a project to explore what happens in households that receive the new government’s minimum wage increases. ‘We’re looking at doing a cohort study tracking a hundred households as minimum wage rises occur over the next three years. When you give money to people facing poverty, they do good stuff with it. There’s a false idea that they’ll just waste it on booze and drugs, but that’s a small, small minority. In fact, research shows poor people actually consume less alcohol and drugs than more affluent folk.’
When you give money to people facing poverty, they do good stuff with it.
PROFESSOR DARRIN HODGETTS
Professor Hodgetts also points to the intricate complications that can occur when incomes rise. ‘If you give more income to households in a commodified housing market, rents go up. The problem is that we don’t regulate. There’s a whole range of things you could do to bring that market into something that’s more functional. I think people are genuinely concerned and want to think that if you have a job, you should be able to support yourself. If we have a liveable wage and realistic prices for housing, taxpayers wouldn’t have to be subsidising this so much.’
The team also works with community groups and agencies. ‘We try to be a resource and work collaboratively, so although our projects have academic merit and they’re at the cutting edge of poverty research internationally, they’re also quite practical. If we’re going to engage with an agency, we want to leave it in better shape than when we came.
We worked for the Auckland City Mission’s crisis care team for eighteen months and we did a lot of work on upskilling, including open questioning with clients, keeping a conversation going, and building rapport. A lot of those social skills are really important, so when a person is coming in seeking care they get a sympathetic, informed ear. We shouldn’t underestimate that human contact, because I think a big difference with poverty today is you’re more likely to be alone. When you’re socially connected with others in the face of adversity you don’t necessarily get the same poor outcomes.
A whole bunch of things need to happen and I’m hoping our group can contribute to that. That’s the point of social science, to grapple with these problems. We don’t make the decisions but we want to provide enough information to say what the poverty reduction options are and what’s feasible for the government to actually be able to do. I think we can resolve poverty but it’s going to take a whole suite of changes. The heartening thing is, New Zealanders want something done about it. We just differ on what is to be done about it, and that’s where research becomes important. It’s important that different political views are involved in projects, for the simple reason that there are kernels of truth in a lot of different perspectives.’