Few could deny that inequality is a pressing issue for New Zealand society. The statistics paint a dark and troubling picture, but it is seeing other young people live a life of “constrained” choices that really brings the message home.
As a teenager from a modest background, it was the belief in equality of opportunity that made “trying hard” worth it. I grew up naively believing that a person’s ability to succeed in life was primarily determined by skill and effort. Later, I came to realise just how much a person’s journey is dictated by things that have little to do with the individual.
This year, New Zealand was ranked as the 7th best country for a baby to be born. The “Where To Be Born in 2013” list, made by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), seeks to measure the ability of a country to provide “opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead”.
Although falling behind countries such as Switzerland (1st) and our neighbour Australia (2nd), things look promising.
Yet New Zealand has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world and severe rates of income disparity. A significant proportion of New Zealanders (approximately 500,000 people on one conservative estimate) live in conditions of “poverty”, as defined by the Ministry of Social Development.
We like to think that we live in an egalitarian society, but we often ignore the significant cracks that exist in our communities.
I have always wanted to raise my children, when I eventually have them, in Auckland. This was something that was never questioned in my mind. But what I took for granted when reaching that decision is the fact that my children will have parents who are well educated and who will (hopefully) have the disposable income to afford a comfortable lifestyle, overseas holidays and plenty of extra-curricular activities to go alongside an education at a “good” school.
Warren Buffett apparently once said that he “won the ovarian lottery”: it was to winning the lottery of life, of being born in the right country at the right time and in the right situation, that he attributed much of his success.
Of course, Mr Buffett also worked hard . But not everyone who works hard is able to climb society’s rungs. People are trapped by their starting points and there are difficulties with social mobility. My experiences tell me that it’s not determination and grit that families living in hardship lack; it’s opportunity.
A society of equal opportunity is something that we aspire to, and we cannot ignore the fact that the ability of a person to succeed in life is affected by a multiplicity of both individual and social differences.
Issues of poverty and inequality are just some of the pressing challenges that New Zealand faces, as we consider what identity and values we wish to hold as a community. As a 22-year-old, I want to not only see New Zealand flourish in the global arena, but to pursue those economic goals in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner.
Most importantly, I want to be assured that should a child draw the short straw in the lottery of life, that they will nonetheless be supported by society to reach their full potential.