8 Sep 2017

Who are New Zealand's precariat?

From Nine To Noon, 9:28 am on 8 September 2017

For New Zealand's 'precariat', life is a daily struggle. They live in barely adequate insecure housing and are in constant fear of losing their income, which is often derived from working more than one job.

A new book Precarity: Uncertain, insecure and unequal lives in Aotearoa New Zealand looks at the day-to-day reality of life for such people.

A state house in Northcote

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Massey University professor of societal psychology Darrin Hodgetts and his colleague, Stuart Carr, conceived of a book to illustrate the lives of the poor in this country; a group who may be unemployed, elderly, disabled, homeless, students or refugees.

Hodgetts says one in every six New Zealanders now falls into the precariat group, with women, the young, those with no qualifications and those on low incomes predominating.

“These are people who often rotate between benefits and paid employment and often juggle multiple jobs, so-called flexible jobs, they rely on welfare to fill in the holes in their budgets.

“They’re often accused of being at fault for the conditions in which they stand.”

And once you’re in the precariat class, you’re likely to stay there, he says.

“Their rights are stripped away from them and their life chances are steadily diminished.”

And getting a job is seldom the way out of this situation either.

“Many in poverty are actually working, the idea that work is a solution to poverty is a little bit simplistic, work today is not necessarily a solution to poverty.”

The economist who coined the phrase precariat, Guy Standing, has written extensively about the drift of wealth away from labour to rent-seeking assets – and the same pattern can be seen in New Zealand, Hodgetts says.

“We’re getting schism between people in the precariat who don’t have money to invest so can’t get those passive returns, and those who do are getting a larger and larger share of the economy.”

He says a range of measures are needed to redress this increasing inequality.

Darrin Hodgetts

Darrin Hodgetts Photo: Supplied

“The gap between the minimum wage and a living wage, basic incomes to bring some stability and security, and we might even have to start looking at maximum wages - poverty is a relational issue, it’s not just about the poor.”

One thing that is common to all people in this situation in New Zealand and throughout the world is stress.

“People are losing control of their time, if you’re juggling multiple jobs there’s a lot of unpaid labour goes into getting ready for those jobs.

"If you’re dealing with agencies you’re filling forms, you’re getting the run-around, you’ve got to go to budget meetings even though everybody knows you don’t have enough money.”

He says being in the precariat is like “running through sand” and the problem is multi-generational

“There’s a lot of diversity within these age cohorts, so there are a lot of people post 65 surviving on the super with really nothing else, they’re renting and they are doing it hard.”

If precariats make it to retirement at all, they don’t have assets or super and so struggle to just make ends meet.  

Hodgetts pours scorn on that idea that the problem is one of dependency.

“People on the political right of the spectrum see dependency as the problem not poverty their argument is dependency breeds poverty – it’s absolute nonsense there’s no empirical evidence for this.”