By definition: How to turn poverty and homelessness into a joke

Guest Post:

I recently read Jarrod Gilbert’s Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.  A great insight into the development and nature of gang culture in New Zealand.  I did not agree with all Gilbert’s conclusions but overall a very good coverage of the history.

Before getting into the history Gilbert helpfully provided a definition of gangs.  The definition is basically three pronged:

Incipient gangs: a loosely structured group of youths with a common identifier and few formal rules.

Gang: A structured group with exclusive membership, common identifiers and formal rules that supersede the state.

Criminal gangs: A structured group with exclusive membership, common identifiers and formal rules that supersede the state and an organisational focus on profit through crime.

Gilbert is an academic and the book has an academic style to it.  A mantra I learnt when at University for putting together papers was Intro – what I will say, Body – saying it and Conclusion – what I said and if confident some bold conclusions.  And that is how the book is structured.

Definitions are also a hallmark of academic writing.  Define some key terms and concepts before you dive into your thesis.  The definitions are self-serving.  They assist the writer in making distinctions and creating a platform to explore ideas.  They can also have a wider self-serving/ self-interest purpose of promoting the political views or economic interests of the writer.

Gilbert’s definitions are really useful in achieving distinctions between different gang types.  This greatly assists his analysis and teases out the different gang types that feature or had featured in New Zealand.  It is hard to identify a wider purpose in his definitions with political or economic interests.  At best you could accuse Gilbert of being a little soft on gangs, particularly his fairly soft conclusions on the extent of criminal activity within gangs in New Zealand.

All this got me thinking about the definitions we have adopted for homelessness and poverty in New Zealand, the political motivators and economic self-interest of those who have adopted and promote these definitions and the extent to which they have contributed to widespread disengagement of the New Zealand voter on two issues that genuinely require attention.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 01: A homeless man keeps warm in the doorway of a central city shop in Auckland, Tuesaday. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)


New Zealand’s homelessness is estimated at around 40,000.  That is close to 1% of the population.  When I read that number I was shocked and sat up as in my mind that figure just did not stack up with the empirical evidence of homelessness.  On top of the 40,000 figure, New Zealand apparently ranks number 1 out of 29 OECD countries that provided data, ahead of the Czech Republic and Australia… or so the media tell us.  I had to look into this as this was just not adding up.  What I discovered at the time was that I due to circumstance was actually one of the homeless for a short period of time.  Me, on close to a six-figure income and the owner of three houses (not a home).

The OECD data on homelessness is of no real use for comparison purposes.  The report acknowledges that it uses the numbers, and definitions on which these are based,  for each country and that the scope of these definitions varies widely.  For example, Japan the lowest ranked country for homelessness only counts “rough sleepers”.  The New Zealand definition developed by Statistics New Zealand in 2009 is as follows:

living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing.

A recent University of Otago study also provides a definition that is similar to Statistics New Zealand’s definition.  However, they use the term “Severe Housing Deprivation”.  To put it simply the definitions of homelessness and severe housing deprivation are broad and capture a large group of people.

Is the University of Otago definition self-serving?  Of course, it is.  It creates a parameter for homelessness that in turn provides a platform to explore issues and ideas.  Is the self-interest wider than this?  I think so.  The definition creates a large number, 40,000 plus, which in itself magnifies the issue of homelessness.  This in itself captures attention.  Numbers of this magnitude supports the need for a response (and I will use University of Otago’s’ own words):

[the] research has important implications for policy, official data collection and future research … more research is required to further understand the causes and consequences of severe housing deprivation and to identify the most effective interventions.

I wonder who could help with more future research, maybe the authors of the study?  There is an incentive for adopting a wide definition to magnify the issue in order to get more funding to address the issue created by the definition.

What are my main concerns with this definition?  Well, for one, just look at how the politicians through the media have used the numbers that come out of the definition.  Both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson have been quoted as stating in October 2017 “How can we claim to be successful when you have growth of roughly 3% but you’ve got the worst homelessness in the world.

There is so much about that statement that is plain wrong.  The numbers come from just 29 OECD countries, not the whole world.  The statistics used are effectively useless as they don’t compare apples to apples.  Just one simple comparison is to compare Japan’s statistics on rough sleepers and compare it with New Zealand’s component of homeless that rough sleep and they are on par. So, on that basis, we rank with Japan with the lowest homeless rate.


What about poverty?  There are a number of current definitions of poverty in use.  The commonly used version in New Zealand for a poverty threshold is for households with income below 60% of the median household income to be living in poverty.  Within that group of households children are counted and the number of children in poverty is estimated at around 250,000.

Again, these numbers seem, on empirical evidence, to be higher than one can imagine and foster scepticism within me as to what is considered to be living in poverty in New Zealand.  The obvious problem with this definition of poverty is that it measures relative poverty.  For example, if the government were to decree that everyone’s income be increased tenfold (a preposterous suggestion but bear with me) there would still be the same number of households and children in poverty despite everyone being materially better off, even at the bottom end.

The only way to reduce poverty under this definition is to reduce the extremes of income and inequalities across incomes.  For example, if the government made another decree that every income earner was to be paid $50,000 per annum there would be no one living in poverty.  Actually, if the decree was to be the same but at a figure of $1,000 per annum, you would still have no one living in poverty even though they would all actually be in real poverty.  You could sit there and laugh at these examples and that is fine.  However, on the current definition of poverty that we have adopted Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea probably have lower levels of poverty than New Zealand.

A cynic would argue that the definition of poverty that New Zealand has become enamoured with was designed to drive a policy to actively reduce inequality by lifting the income of those at the lower end of the scale and reduce or tax the incomes of those at the upper end of the scale.  A socialist solution.  The problem with this solution, at the extreme end, is that when it plays out income equality can be achieved but more people suffer in real poverty.

It is tempting to descend further down political lines of left and right.  I don’t want to go there.  What I would like to respectfully suggest is that Gilbert’s approach to definitions may be an approach we could adopt for definitions of homelessness and poverty.  What did Gilbert do?  Well, rather than adopt one unwieldy definition he broke his definition down into three components.  With Gilbert’s definition, you can take one element of gang definition on its own or two together but also compile the three together to look at gangs in the whole.

So how can we apply that approach to homelessness?  What I would suggest is a definition with three components – rough sleepers, sleeping in accommodation other than suitable housing (eg cars garages and uninhabitable housing etc) and forced shared accommodation.

With poverty? It would seem to me that measuring elements of severe deprivation rather than a raw percentage of median income would provide a better focus for poverty.

Many voters have for years now rolled their eyes when the extent of poverty in New Zealand is raised.  Many are now disengaged on the issue as a result.  Sadly, there are pockets of real poverty in New Zealand or at least the symptoms of real poverty manifesting themselves in health issues.  What we need is a focus on this real poverty and to work out a policy on how to address it.

As for homelessness?  Well at the moment it is a shiny new political football to kick around.  I suspect it won’t be too long before eyes start rolling again, voters get disengaged and the real issues of homelessness and policy to deal with it get lost in the debate.

What do we risk?  Bob Hawke in the lead up to the 1987 Australian federal election (mistakenly, apparently) made a pledge that “By 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty.”  Thirty years on the Australian “children in poverty” statistics have barely moved.  It has become a joke.  Actually, it became a joke within three years.  How Green Was My Cactus, an Australian political satire in the form of a radio play, did a great spoof of Bob Hawke being interviewed toward the end of 1989 in which he was asked by the reporter how the child poverty policy was progressing.  Bob Hawke’s (King Bonza the Charismatic’s) response was, “Well as you know, Poverty is a small town in outback Queensland and as we speak the last children are being bussed out and so no child will be living in Poverty by 1990.”   Do we have a town called Poverty?  If we did it may give Jacinda Ardern a glimmer of hope.


by The Undertaker

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