Rebekah Graham continues her series on the results of her PhD research on food insecurity. Here she addresses the ridiculous and useless advice forced on poor New Zealand families.
Read part one – No, poor New Zealand families can’t just ‘grow their own vegetables’ and part two – No, poor NZ families don’t just need to make ‘better choices’.
Let’s face it – the run-up to the election was a pretty terrible time for hurtful and horrible commentary about low income families in New Zealand.
Last month, a story on a beneficiary who has $22 or less a week for food each week had a lot of attention. With that attention came many, many ill-advised and ignorant comments.
“Don’t read the comments” is an internet mantra, but the moral judgements on display in the comments section reflect what many New Zealanders think. And we can’t shy away from that.
Having very little left over for food and any other expenses each week is a fairly typical scenario for people on low-incomes. MSD’s 2016 report on the material wellbeing of New Zealand households acknowledges that “Low-income households especially can be left with insufficient income to meet other basic needs such as food, clothing, basic household operations, transport, medical care and education for household members.” [PDF]
Despite this, New Zealanders seem to have a special brand of hate for beneficiaries. This surfaces in comment sections, deriding and demeaning those beneficiaries brave enough to speak out about the grim reality of their situation. In the snapshot of comments below there is an assumption that work will somehow magically fix poverty. In reality, New Zealand has a low-wage economy. Low-wage work does little to improve a person’s financial situation.
In addition, it’s not uncommon for commenters to want to dig around in the details of a beneficiary’s life to determine if they’re “really” poor, or to try and find evidence of “poor decisions” that show that people such as Lynlie are “deserving” of their poverty. It’s a way to blame individuals for their hardship, and is based on incorrect assumptions about why poverty exists in New Zealand.
Of course no comments section would be complete without the pearler “why is there no garden?” I’ve addressed that common misconception here. Suffice to say, backyard gardens are no panacea for food insecurity and insufficient incomes. The “just move somewhere else” argument assumes that there is sufficient safe and affordable housing throughout the country. In reality, there is an absence of suitable housing throughout New Zealand, with places such as Rotorua, Hamilton and Southland all struggling with the high cost of private rentals, inadequate social housing stock, and homelessness.
There’s a reason why researchers like me fiercely protect the identities of our participants. Having strangers trawling through every detail of your life is invasive, humiliating, and demeaning. Even more so when the sole purpose of such a practice is to pronounce judgement and tell people in hardship that if they just did [insert terrible advice here], then they wouldn’t be poor. Below, commenters use the provided example of walking to a community meal for food as a tool to berate Lea with for not trying harder to get paid work:
Well, Mr If She Had A Catalogue Run She Wouldn’t Be Poor, have I got news for you. In contrast to your assumptions, Lea has tried very hard to create additional funds for herself. Despite having no computer or printer, she still managed to find a way to print off flyers advertising her cleaning services. There was little interest. It was a bit of a bust by all accounts.
Undeterred, Lea attempted to sell Avon. Her family and friends aren’t wealthy. Perhaps not as grim as her situation, but there’s little left to spare for buying items from the Avon catalogue. Consequently, Lea walked down to a local retail centre and office block in an attempt to sell items to people with a higher income than herself.
Reader, they called security. Nobody wanted to buy Avon from Lea. She was escorted from the premises, and left feeling humiliated and embarrassed. Lea was told not to come back again, and her attempts to legitimately gain additional income instead resulted in an increased sense of shame and isolation.
Berating people such as Lea and Leslie for not trying harder, or for not making better choices, or for not having a catalogue run conveniently ignores and overlooks the wider structural issues driving poverty in this country. These include the eroding of social supports, insufficient safe and affordable housing, low wages, punitive welfare, inadequate mental health services, and systemic racism. Together with the increasing cost of living, too many New Zealanders are being left without sufficient incomes to live on.
Lea and Lynlie’s choices are scathingly judged simply because they are poor. In a country that refuses to adequately provide for all its citizens, heaping sanctimonious judgments upon people such as Lea and Lynlie is cruel, shameful and ultimately unhelpful.
Rebekah Graham is a PhD candidate at Massey University (Albany campus). Her research with families documents the lived experiences of food insecurity within the context of poverty. She lives in Hamilton with her husband, four children, and a very large orange cat.