Way back in 1966, the BBC in Britain screened a television play entitled Cathy Come Home.
n what these days would be termed a docudrama, it told the distressing story of a young working class family ripped apart by homelessness.
It was fictional. But what has been described as its “gritty realism” shocked most of the estimated 12 million viewers who watched the first of many screenings.
It portrayed a much darker side of life in Britain in the so-called “swinging sixties”; one in which people could fall through gaping holes in the supposed safety net of the welfare state through no fault of their own.
It will come as no great surprise to those acquainted with his films that Cathy Come Home was directed by Ken Loach, someone who wears his left-wing politics as a badge of pride.
But in the case of Cathy Come Home, Loach’s politics were irrelevant. The work still ranks in most television critics’ minds as one of the most influential productions in television history.
Its impact was so profound that the story goes that the actor who played the role of the mother would be stopped in the street by strangers who would hand her money. That was in large part because of the mother’s fate in losing her children who were placed into state care in the drama’s harrowing finale.
Over the last couple of weeks or so, New Zealand has played out its own version of Cathy Come Home.
The blight of child poverty has bubbled away for some time as a political issue. National thought it had contained it, most notably by stealing a march on Labour by increasing benefit rates for the first time in literally decades.
But the extra $25 a week for beneficiary families, which came into effect last month, has so far paid little by way of a political dividend.
National instead has been the proverbial stunned mullet in struggling to put an end to the seemingly never-ending media exposure of the numbers of people living in cars, garages and (and if they are lucky) chronically overcrowded houses.
John Key and his ministers continue to argue there is no crisis. In doing so, they only succeed in appearing to be in denial. However, yesterday’s surprise announcement on the eve-of Budget day of a new scheme which dangles the carrot of a $5000 grant to entice state house tenants and the homeless to leave Auckland and go and live in the regions indicated a degree of panic seeping out of the Beehive..
It is a sticking plaster-like solution to a byproduct of the complexities of the Auckland housing crisis, more exactly the shortage of affordable homes for low-income earners to either buy or rent.
National has become trapped in its own dogma. Like some kind of mad scientist, Bill English is still conducting his experiment of trying to create a market whereby privately-owned or run housing organisations would compete against one another to be providers of what is now termed as “social housing”.
Such an ideology-driven reform has required the run down of the existing state provider, Housing New Zealand,. This is in order to ensure the corporation’s current dominance in the provision of housing for beneficiaries does not translate into market-distorting monopoly.
English’s Treasury-backed scheme has taken the best part of six years to reach even the pilot stage. That time-lag in itself suggests the notion of creating a social housing market for those at the very bottom of the economic heap is fundamentally flawed and impossible implement unless you subsidise private providers to enter the market by handing them Housing New Zealand stock at knockdown prices.
Such twisted logic is compounding homelessness because the demolition of Housing New Zealand is already under way without the market alternative being in place. Little wonder people are falling through the cracks.
Making what may well turn out to be the most politically foolish statement by a politician this year, Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith argued that the idea that homelessness had suddenly happened in May 2016 was a “figment of some people’s imagination.” In other words, the poor have always been with us.
But if the answer to housing the homeless is the latter ending up thousands of dollars in debt to Work and Income for money loaned to them to stay in motels, then it must be a rather stupid question. It is the stuff of Kafka.
That there is a new category of the poor who are victims of circumstances far beyond their control and who cannot be dismissed as welfare bludgers is something which will disturb fair-minded New Zealanders, whatever their politics.
What is most puzzling is why an administration that takes an “investment” approach to social policy by targeting problem families at an early stage in the hope of saving money in the longer term on things like prisons and mental health units,, is making it ever more difficult for such families to get access to the most fundamental driver in improving social outcomes. That driver is decent housing.
Regardless, parents and their children living in cars fits no-one’s vision of what is acceptable in what is supposed to be God’s. Own country.
The “Kiwi Dream” may have become a cliche. But the belief that everyone should be given a fair go remains embedded deeply in the nation’s consciousness.
In failing to acknowledge that homelessness has reached crisis levels, National risks being seen as ignoring that national trait.
Today’s Budget will provide the measure of whether National is losing its heart along with its head.