Wellington City Missioner
The first time I came face to face with poverty in Wellington was a few years ago when I walked into one of the units in Newtown Park Flats.
A family of five children and a solo mother were living in a one-bedroom flat; three of the children slept in bunks in the lounge and two children with their mother in the bedroom. The entire flat would have been the same area of my lounge at home.
The mother wanted to purchase a car as her 9 year old son had been diagnosed with bronchiectasis (a chronic and irreversible lung condition), and another child was developing regular bouts of bronchitis.
Both children wanted to remain active in sports, but it meant catching two buses in the cold at night.
She was so desperate, she had contacted a high-interest loan company who, after checking her collateral such as the bunk beds, her own bed, and a third-hand lounge suite, agreed to lend her the money. If she had taken the loan and defaulted, the family would have had nothing to sleep or sit on.
This is one of the thousands of stories of poverty in New Zealand. Poverty is a relentless oppressor; it excludes, it stigmatizes, it generates chronic stress, and locks people into a cycle of hopelessness or entrapment.
More importantly, it undermines the life chances of children born into poverty.
Professor Ruth Lister, a director of Children Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in the UK said in her Sambell oration in 2010 ‘A society that condones poverty in its midst is not a fair or inclusive society. So long as a significant minority is unable to participate fully in the life of a community…poverty eradication has to be a primary goal.’
What groups are impacted by poverty in New Zealand? There is currently a strong political focus in moving working-age beneficiaries into work as one of the key solutions to alleviating poverty.
However, according to New Zealand’s CPAG report Further Left Behind, around half the children in hardship are from working families. While people on benefits proportionally experience greater hardship then those working, families on low incomes are subject to the same relentless stressors of (for example) housing costs exceeding a third of their already-inadequate income.
Some of the families we work with here at the Wellington City Mission (through our Mission for Families) have one parent who works during the day and the other at night.
Despite their relentless work ethic and schedules they simply can’t get ahead; a winter’s electricity bill (particularly if they live in low quality housing) can mean compromising their budget for basic grocery items.
Can you imagine the hopelessness and frustration of working so many hours, and still not being able to purchase nutritious food or provide three meals a day for your children?
Poverty is personal, structural, corporate and complex; it requires a response from all levels of society. More importantly, it requires a degree of solidarity rather than an exclusively intellectual perspective.
If you haven’t experienced poverty in your own life, visit your local soup kitchen or drop in centre, and take the time to share a table with the people who are there.
What are their stressors? What are their fears, dreams and hopes? When poverty disturbs our own world and identity (rather than excluding or avoiding it), we will move further toward eradicating rather than condoning poverty in New Zealand.