National Perpetuates Poverty

In the 1960’s the notion of the ‘cycle of poverty’ was a key phrase heard in relation to Indigenous, Black and Minority communities. The power of the idea that families were ‘locked’ into a ‘cycle’ of underachievement, unemployment and poverty due to their own failures gained precedence in the implementation of programmes that were considered to take on a challenge and to wage ‘war on poverty’. Programmes were focused on the percieved ‘deficits’ of those in poverty and were referred to as ‘cultural deprivation theories’. These theories are based upon an assumption that the overrepresentation of particular groups in educational underachievement, unemployment and poverty indices in society is due to their lacking of appropriate knowledge, skills, values and language modes which enable a successful experience within the education system. In defining cultural deprivation, in 1965, Bloom argued,
“We will refer to this group as culturally disadvantaged or culturally deprived because we believe the root of their problems may in large part be traced to their experiences in homes which do not transmit the cultural patterns necessary for the types of learning characteristic of the schools and larger society.” (Bloom 1965:4)

Education was seen as a critical focus for such an approach. As such many commentators claimed that cultural deprivation may be considered in relation to material, cultural and emotional conditions in the home. These conditions were further qualified as
• Material deprivation – Poverty, bad housing conditions, overcrowding, inadequate care
• Cultural deprivation – (a)Sensory deprivation:Monotonous, lacking stimulation, dull, dearth of books, `restricted’ codes
• Linguistic deprivation: Limited Language, verbal impoverishment,
• Lack of Parental interest in child’s education
• Emotional deprivation- Absence of one parent, lack of warmth and affection.

The `deprived’ child in such a paradigm is viewed as lacking the material, cultural and emotional resources to enable adequate preparation for the school experience and enter the education system with `deficits’ that will influence their progression through their schooling (Bloom 1965). It was argued that these `deficits’ act to handicap the child and their ability to live a satisfying life. This approach is based upon a social pathology model which establishes white middle class behaviour and values as the norm against which all people were measured. There was a dominant belief that those who did not adhere to such norms were ‘culturally bereft’.  The supposed deprivation was located at the level of the family and for Māori that included the broader whānau.

Another manifestation of this approach is the ‘cultural difference’ model. ‘Cultural difference’ contends a diversity of cultural difference exists however these culturally different ways are not considered equal.  Rather cultural difference assumes there is a `norm’ that acts as a yardstick against which `other’ cultures are measured, with the `norm’ being that of the dominant group within society. This paradigm maintains an underlying assumption that culturally `different’ children carry deficits from their cultural background in that they are different from the stated `norm’. Furthermore, implicit within the cultural difference scenario is an implication that if all groups held the same culture the inequalities that exist between them would vanish. This is a model that whilst having a guise of acknowledging difference does in fact support an ongoing assimilation agenda.

The shift from cultural deprivation to that of cultural difference was one that emphasized a notion of Pākehā tolerance of non-Pākehā cultures. This model maintained a deficit view of Māori and failed to challenge the wider social, political and economic context which perpetuated unequal power relations between Pākehā as the dominant group, and Māori. The outcome being that the term `cultural difference’ became synonymous with cultural deprivation.

The most succinct usage of cultural deprivation theory Aotearoa is that offered by John Forster and Peter Ramsay (1973). In their article “The Māori population 1936-1966” they proclaimed
“It is generally agreed that his [Māori] low attainment is the result of a combination of other factors. Poor Socio-economic conditions, including such factors as occupancy rates, social attitudes, poor living conditions, and a different cultural upbringing impose severe limitations on the Māori scholar.” (J.Forster & P.Ramsay,1969:211)
Their “Interlocking Spiral of Cumulative and Circular Causation” diagram is premised upon a model of `cycle of poverty’ that operates to perpetuate low educational achievement and unemployment for Māori. This model argued that interrupting the `deprivation cycle’ necessitates a change in cultural factors which predetermine Māori participation in the cycle. It is argued that change must therefore occur in the social and cultural capital of the child and their family environment, particularly in terms of the statement by D.G. Ball, that it is “the `Māoriness’ of the child which is the greatest handicap” (Ball cited in Forster J. & Ramsay P.,1969:211).

Institutional utilisation of cultural difference theories, at the time, to explain educational underachievement within New Zealand can be seen in Department of Education documents of the 1970s concerning the education of Māori students (Smith L.1986). A Ministry publication, “The Education of Māori Children: A Review” (1971) carried this message,
“All these reports [i.e. Hunn Report, Currie Commission] attempted to analyse the Māori childs inability to fulfil his [sic] potential in the existing education, in spite of endowments equal to those of Pakeha. They recognised that often a Māori child entered a Pakeha-oriented school less well prepared by pre-school experience than a Pakeha, particularly in the use of language. His [sic] differences in this respect were likely to handicap his [sic] whole educational progress if steps were not taken within the school system. Social and economic conditions including inadequate housing and poor opportunities for employment of both youth and adults, were contributing factors.” (Department of Education, 1971:18-19)

Māori cultural experiences and background are positioned as `other than the norm’, the norm being middle class Pākehā culture, the Māori child and her/his environment were seen as deficient and handicaps to future success.

Cultural deprivation/disadvantage/difference theories assume there exists a `norm’ in society against which all `others’ can be measured and evaluated. In Aotearoa the `norm ‘ may be generally stated as middle class Pākehā. Māori, Pacific Nations and all other minority cultural groupings within this country are, within this model, assessed relative to that `norm’. The emphasis focused upon ‘correcting’ the cultural background of Māori children is based on the assumption that the environment of the Māori child is a barrier to their achievement and that Māori children carry with them particular `cultural baggage’ that impedes their development. Underlying such a theory is the notion that the dominant culture and knowledge are endorsed as ‘the’ way of being within Aotearoa.

Such approaches assume a `taken for granted’ perception of the structures and institutions into which Māori enter. Structures and systems remain unquestioned. The power relations that exist within society and between groups is unchallenged. In failing to recognise such dynamics those that advocate these approaches ignore the role the dominant group plays in defining what counts as valid culture and knowledge and how once defined those cultural norms and knowledge are legitimated and maintained through the structures. Those that experience poverty are homogenised as a single entity with no regard was given to ethnic, cultural, regional and economic and political contexts. Families are constructed as incompetent and assumptions regarding the childs environment are determined by ‘deficit’ approaches. The ways in which power relationships are shaped to benefit and privilege some groups over others is ignored.

These ‘deficit’ approaches remain dominant within Aotearoa today and provide ongoing justification for the current government policy approaches and discourses that we are hearing from the National Party. This approach has not changed over the past 25 years with the National Party stating in 1990 with the introduction of the Parents as First Teachers programme:
“National will be carefully testing and developing this programme which has the potential to break families out of the cycle of failure that now condemns many to underachievement and dependence on the welfare state.” (National Party, 1990)

The discourses that have emerged from the National government in relation to the huge increase in poverty continue to be located within ‘deficit’ thinking and create a context that enables neo-liberal privatization agendas. Such thinking continues to be reproduced through the likes of Paula Bennett ( and John Key ( ) advocating that drugs is a key cause of poverty when there is not evidence upon which to base such assertions and where research indicates that in fact is incorrect ( The fact that John Key continues to argue the validity of his statements, which have not basis in reality, highlights the power and dominance of ‘deficit’ thinking.

The failure of government agencies and ministries to intervene in poverty and the ongoing marginalization of Māori, Pacific Nations and the growing underemployed and unemployed population also contributes to the increasing commodification of the social services and ‘social welfare’ sector. The exact economic system that has created a context of crisis becomes the system that is rewarded by the government through privatization. We need to challenge such approaches that locate blame for poverty at the feet of those who are most impacted upon by an unequal oppressive economic model. The system itself is creating the context for increased poverty, not the people who are most impacted. The government chooses to deny its role in making social change and seeking social justice through their agencies thereby giving rationale to their privatization agenda. This is not new. We have had strong critique of the role of neo-liberalism in the production of inequality and how those corporate and multinational entities that support the neo-liberal market driven approach benefit from the reproduction of such approaches (Refer to Naomi Klein ‘Shock Doctrine’ )

In advocating the ‘market’ can do a better job than the State in terms of dealing with issues of inequality and social injustice the government is basically handing a pot of gold to its corporate friends and abdicating it’s responsibility to support social wellbeing for all within Aotearoa. Charter Schools and Serco provide us with clear examples of the governments unsuccessful policies and programmes that have embedded the social services even more deeply into a neo-liberal framework. There is no evidence that these models work, there has been no true and meaningful attempt by governments here to reconstruct systems of education and justice to be more equitable and to deal with fundamental inequalities that create a context of underachievement and exceedingly high incarceration rates. In fact we are seeing the exact opposite, with the Ministry of Social Development waging war against strong successful community NGO organisations and forcing them into closure through unreasonable and unethical contracting and review processes.

For Māori whanau this is even more deeply impacting as the government forces entirely unjust practices in regards to Treaty settlement processes and forces many hapu and iwi into structures that are not aligned to our tikanga, but which fit the capitalist model of profit generation. The denial of the impact of colonization and historical trauma events alongside the domination of neo-liberal capitalist system adds multiple layers to the issues of injustice and the context of oppression within which our people are living.
We need to support groups such as Child Poverty Action Group, Māori social service Providers, Auckland Mission and other Missions and organisations around the country that are working directly with the growing number of our people living in poverty. We need to challenge this government to move away from a system that creates poverty. We need to stop blaming those who are most impacted and most importantly we must find ways to contribute to making Aotearoa a more just and equitable country in which to raise our tamariki and mokopuna.

At this time of year there is much joy for many, and there is much pain for many. It is not enough to speak of ‘goodwill to all’ and to not contribute to transforming our society to ensure that all people live a full and healthy life. As Māori we have much to offer. Our fundamental tikanga of aroha, manaakitanga, tautoko, awhina, tiaki, whanaungatanga bring to us a cultural responsibility to support each other and others within our communities. Most importantly we need to be a part of the struggle to bring change in Aotearoa. Change for our whānau, hapū and iwi, and change for those manuhiri who live on our lands. That is a taonga left to us by our tupuna and is what our tupuna sought for us all.

Author: Te Wharepora Hou

Te Wharepora Hou is a collective of wāhine who are mainly Tāmaki Makaurau based, but we have strong participation from wāhine based elsewhere in Aotearoa and the world. We have come together to ensure a stronger voice for wāhine and are concerned primarily with the wellbeing of whānau, hapū, iwi and all that pertains to Papatūānuku and the sustenance of our people.

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