The Struggling Class: An interview with Bryan Bruce

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Bryan Bruce / Image supplied

This morning I listened to an interview with the Prime Minister, who talked about the recent claims that New Zealand’s housing market is one of the most overvalued in the developed world.

Translated, this means that the average New Zealander is finding it almost impossible to enter the housing market in order to buy a family home—that is, a long term option to house a family as opposed to a short-term speculative gamble.  House prices are hideously bloated, and incomes are not matching this trend.

Instead of addressing the research and acknowledging this growing crisis, Key chose to play it down, placing the cause of the growing house values on good employment (inferring that people have enough money to afford the housing, and the prices reflect that demand) and an ‘overall buoyancy’ in the market.  In effect, he credited National’s strong economic leadership and direction for the high price of housing.  I wondered if National would ever implement a Capital Gains tax, which would cool speculation in the property market?

You have to be joking, right?

Where, then, does that leave what investigative journalist Bryan Bruce terms the ‘struggling class’?

I spoke to Bryan over the weekend.  He has recently returned from filming a documentary in the US and Finland.  Bruce is known for his long history of documentary making, and in particular the television series The Investigator.  He also helmed the ground-breaking documentaries Mind the Gap and Inside Child Poverty.

Bruce’s Scottish parents emigrated to New Zealand in the 50s when housing was not only available and affordable, but subsidised with help from a government loan of 3% over 40 years.  Bruce remembers milk in schools, and was educated freely right through to university level.

I asked him about this ‘struggling class’—surely, a small group of middle class New Zealanders who simply cannot afford to own a home, even on two incomes?

“The struggling class is anyone who can work all week and can’t meet their basic bills for food, electricity and housing. This is getting huge as the old ‘middle class’ is shrinking”, says Bruce.

I assumed that meant that people on good wages should be able to make ends meet each week without incurring debt in doing so.  That means if credit cards are being used to pay for groceries or basic needs, you are struggling.

I wondered what had gone wrong for us as a nation to have the claim to fame of creating a whole new class in society. A class that has ceased to function independently of government welfare systems, a class that can no longer afford to even buy a basic home.

Bruce believes that the current and previous coalitions have nurtured a sense of individualism—a ‘why should my taxes pay for someone else’s children’ mentality.  He believes this has come out of neoliberalism which is founded on selfishness and competition. “National already has the kind of society it wants,” he says.

“Do I think John Key,  Bill English and the rest of the National-led coalition wake up in the morning and say to themselves: ‘How can I make the lives of the people at the bottom of New Zealand society worse today?’  Of course not. But that’s what neoliberalism has done, and continues to do.”

Bruce suggests that maintaining the status quo, the trickle-down effect and other neoliberal ideas about economy, by and large underpin the reasons why there is child poverty, inadequate housing and wider social issues in this country.

“If we apply the theory of the ‘trickle down of wealth’ to welfare, we might give the money to the parents, and it will somehow trickle down the child, because parents are seen as economically responsible for that child”.

I always thought that was the deal.  I always thought that the function of an economy was to keep individuals independent of welfare systems, and that it was the government’s role to create platforms (education, employment, good quality affordable housing) for that to occur.

Bruce favours the Scandanavian model of welfare.  “In countries like Sweden, there is an acceptance that the community is also responsible for the well-being of every child. So they tend to channel welfare funding directly to the children—so you see meals at schools, doctors and nurses at schools.  I think we need to be a lot smarter in how we distribute state assistance for children—through bypassing the parents and getting the services directly to the kids.”

So what’s going on, then, with our economy, that we have a visible poverty problem with our children, and educated adults like myself on a good income, can barely pay a mortgage?

“I think an economy should deliver the greatest good, for the greatest number of people over the longest time,” says Bruce.  It’s something he has said before and while he doesn’t give specific ideas about how this could come about, one of the problems of it is that the richest class may feel penalised by the economic woes of other classes, and change their vote.

Bruce believes that we, as a nation, need to reset our fundamental values—this starts with children well before they start school. Do we have a system where this can occur?

“I’ve just come back from Finland where I interviewed a head teacher of a school in Espoo for my upcoming documentary on education. ‘When do kids start school?’ I asked. ‘Seven’ was the reply.  ‘So…Who looks after them before that?’  ‘Their parents.’ ‘How can they afford to do that?’ ‘Taxes—we happily pay for parents to be with their kids because we think society benefits from it in the long run’.”

“There’s more to life than money, but if we want a better society then we have to pay for it.” says Bruce.  “And we need to start at the foundations, at the beginning, because the health, social competence and intellectual abilities a child develops in the first six years of their life will largely determine their life outcomes as an adult. ”

At the time of writing this blog post, one parent is eligible for 14 weeks Paid Parental Leave only.

“The current agenda is to get parents out “working” as soon as possible after a child is born. But this because we put heavy value on work that produces money. What we need to do, is learn from the Scandinavians that to bring up children properly is very valuable work—even if you don’t get some money put in your hand for it. It’s time we learned from the Finns and Swedes. What price do you put on motherhood? Or fatherhood?”

Bruce is currently finishing his documentary which will have a focus on education in New Zealand.

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