Kiki Van Newtown, mum of two and a musician, shares what it was like growing up on welfare, and the lessons she learnt from her own mum about how to survive while poor.
There’s a running joke in my family that my mum sent me to school one day with half a raw swede in my lunchbox. It’s a true story which wasn’t originally intended as a joke. Joking about it is something you do years later as a way to rationalise growing up poor, where half a raw swede was all your mum had left to feed you.
The thing about being poor is that nobody ever intends to end up that way. My family were always working class, but I was about seven when I realised we were actually poor, after my dad’s gambling had drained any financial stability from our family. This was the beginning of my education on class and neoliberal economics. Mum left him and we moved into the cheapest house she could find. Her bedroom there was where I first ever saw her crying about bills.
The next few years were lean, but were softened by the fact we lived rurally and most of our days could be filled up with a bike, a water bottle and a Marmite sandwich. As I got older though, I started to realise how blame is assigned for poverty. As a kid I knew I was poor because other kids told me. They told me with taunts about my clothes, or rescinded invites to parties because I didn’t give good presents. Their parents told me by criticising me for holding my cutlery wrong, or commenting on my tatty appearance. The vernacular of exclusion grew into my childhood – no summer holidays, no horse riding, no trips to the snow, no Roll Ups or Le Snaks, no Mambo t-shirts. Just after I turned 13 we moved to a nearby town, and I took up a paper round which paid for my first high-school uniform the next year.
The thing about being poor is that it’s never just one thing. There are new tyres and new shoes and constant bills and these are all woven into the careful choreography of staying afloat. There is no amount of budgeting that will alleviate poverty; there is only the skill and strategy that people living on the breadline know well. It is the monthly dance between having your power or your phone cut off, and it is the knowledge that it only takes one additional obstacle before you fall.
When I was in third form one of my siblings became seriously ill and Mum spent her time driving between her multiple jobs and Starship Hospital. I barely saw her at all during these weeks, as she’d be working night shifts, then day shifts, then evenings at the hospital on repeat. I would get myself to school in the morning, and return home in the late afternoon, handwash my only school shirt, eat toast for dinner, and do my homework in front of the TV while my shirt dried on a clothes rack.
Over the next several years it became a variety of normal if the power was cut off when I got home. It wasn’t weird that we didn’t have a phone for long periods of time. It wasn’t strange that we didn’t have any food in the house, and that a $20 note left beside the fridge was my lunch and dinner for the foreseeable future. I would walk around the corner to the phone box and call the power company to negotiate turning the power back on, and then walk to the fish and chip shop because a scoop of chips was only $1.50, and there was no electricity to cook on anyway. I would practice my viola and set up candles on the table to do my homework, and sometimes I could almost pretend like it was an adventure.
As a teen I learnt that being poor is a collection of experiences that whittles away at your self esteem. I saw the looks checkout operators gave when Mum handed over the letter stamped by WINZ, when we had to put items back because the food grant wasn’t enough to even cover the essentials. I observed the face of our landlord as mum managed to convince him that she would be able to pay the rent on time next week. I watched the pawnbroker shrug as my mum explained that the $30 he was offering for all her gold rings wouldn’t even cover enough petrol to get her to work for a week. And I watched my mum use all of the tricks she had to keep us afloat. Mum’s skill and strategy was magical and fierce, and it did keep us afloat, just. It also gave me a bird’s eye view of how New Zealand’s class system works.
By midway through fifth form the armpits of my school shirt had rotted out. There is a limit to the amount of teenage sweat and cheap deodorant one shirt can absorb, and so I spent the next summer wearing my school jumper no matter what the weather, until by luck I found another school shirt in an opshop. To school prize-giving, I wore the pair of good black vinyl shoes my mum and me and my sister shared.
You learn about people’s values quickly when you’re poor. You learn that people are terrified of poverty. That rich people blame poor people for being poor because they desperately want to believe that their own decisions will keep them from ever ending up that way. People hold on to this because they can’t handle the truth, which is that material wealth is all just down to stupid luck.
You learn a lot about yourself too. You learn that you understand power and fear a lot more than rich people. You learn how to not live in servitude to these things. You learn about hope, and reasoning, and generosity. You learn that money is transient, that sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t. You learn that the amount of money you have doesn’t equate to your value as a person. You learn about scarcity, and that one is really hard to shake. I often think about the ways Mum tried to protect me from feeling poor and how she managed to preserve a feeling of possibility in our house. I now know that she did it by ignoring what society tells poor people they should prioritise. She decided that sometimes it’s more meaningful for a 14 year old to have their first pair of jeans than it is for a car to have a warrant, and that giving your child a sense of opportunity is worth giving up a well balanced diet for. She decided that learning was the priority and she sacrificed her own needs for it.
When I turned 16 my music teacher gave me a job in her orchard and I used my wages to buy a viola. I recently asked my mum how we could afford for me to take music lessons even when we couldn’t even pay the electricity bill. She replied “because I knew it was important”.
And that’s the crux of it all really. There is no logic to being poor, because it’s not logical that anybody should be poor. Collectively we have more than enough, and we should place value on sharing it. We need to stop equating luck with effort. We need to understand that nobody plans on ending up poor – that the thing about being poor is that poor people do not make themselves poor. It’s our society that perpetuates conditions of poverty which makes people poor. And that needs to change.