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Rethinking poverty: aligning our solutions with Kiwi culture

Lindsey Horne, behavioural insights consultant at TRA, asks if we're really doing enough to address poverty in Aotearoa - and how culture can play a role.

Context influences everything we do as humans. You wouldn’t set up your tent right in front the toilet block, nor would you place it on the edge of the river. Even if you had the best tent or a 40-foot RV, you would still look around to find a suitable spot: sheltered and away from the droves of hyper kids in scooter gangs or the rowdy group with a box-wine per person. You survey the wider context and surroundings of where you’ll be staying.

Well, just like going camping, when we try and devise solutions for problems in our society, we need to look around and understand the wider landscape we’re working in.

Our surroundings matter

Taking context into consideration is the first valuable step when addressing wicked and fundamentally systemic problems like reducing poverty and the widening inequality gap. No matter how successfully nudges, frameworks and behaviour change programmes have been implemented in other societies, they will encounter problems in New Zealand if they clash with our collective psyche.

Taika Waititi’s Give Nothing to Racism campaign is a great example of swimming with the cultural current. Kiwis are non-confrontational and don’t over embellish. By calling out those who are “just a bit racist” and with the key action to ‘just be quiet and give nothing’, it’s a pill we can swallow and a message we can get behind. Asking Kiwis to go hammer and tongs after racism would have been a different story.

If we talked about benefits as an ‘equaliser’ or an ‘enrichment’ it could help these ‘hand outs’ feel more like the equitable staggered start on life’s racetrack.

Culture is our reaction to the flow and flux around us. It’s not only the ever-changing phenomena around us – from technology, the environment, politics, to what’s trending on Netflix and the banter on the bus – but how we respond to all of it. Culture is the unspoken rules and codes that we all play by. It’s why we’re so offended when people from overseas mistake us for Australians. It can be hard to explain the specific differences, but we all feel them – it’s our cultural DNA.

Are we walking the walk?

When it comes to poverty, there are some ingrained Kiwi codes we can draw on to tackle the problem. After completing an anthropological study all around New Zealand, TRA in partnership with True developed six Kiwi Cultural Codes* that determine the unspoken rules we play by. One of these codes was social equivalence – or at least a belief in this idea.

As a nation, we’re known for our egalitarianism and standing up for what’s right – but we don’t always see it or feel it day to day. We know that we want to be a fair, moral country but it’s hard to claim this when we see our poverty stats in the media day after day. Kiwis know there is a case for change when it comes to addressing poverty, that comes through loud and clear.

Reframing the issue

More relevant for tackling poverty is Kiwi’s notion of individuality and self-determination. We feel that people have the right to be who they are and that everyone has the right to a fair go, but don’t undermine the collective. We’re okay with individuality as long as it’s backed up, well-earned and genuine. But don’t expect special treatment, we treat everyone the same. It’s why we get riled up when someone is using their phone on a flight – why are they so special that they get to disobey the collective rules?

The tension between individual differences and the collective brings up the old notion of a ‘hand up, not a hand out’. The idea that some people can get a hand out (aka special treatment) doesn’t sit well with our culture that believes that everyone gets treated the same.

This is a real challenge to overcome for our society, especially when we consider that large numbers of New Zealanders do not start on an even playing field and need the so called ‘hand out’ just to put food on the table. We’re expecting everyone to flourish when some of us are malnourished, live in overcrowded, damp houses and have gone through decades of toxic stress.

One small step in aligning policy initiatives to our collective culture and broaching the need for equity over just equality would be to simply start with the language we use. ‘Beneficiaries’ and the ‘benefit’ automatically implies that people who require support to survive are advantaged. It directly goes against the grain that we are all on equal ground and reaffirms the idea of unfair bludging. If we talked about benefits as an ‘equaliser’ or an ‘enrichment’ it could help these ‘hand outs’ feel more like the equitable staggered start on life’s racetrack.

Lindsey Horne is a Behavioural Insights Consultant at TRA.
*The Kiwi Cultural Codes were developed as a collaborative nationwide project between TRA and True. 

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