Tinned tomatoes (Paul Sableman CC-BY-2.0)

Please, no more bloody tinned tomatoes!

This morning the tireless women’s refuge campaigner Jackie Clark published a Facebook post explaining why her organisation doesn’t want donations of tinned tomatoes. It was a message that resonated with Jess Berentson-Shaw, who studies how to help low income families thrive.

Today an important treatise was released into the world, and it was about tinned tomatoes. More specifically it was about why women (all people really) on low incomes do not need or particularly want more bloody tins of tomatoes. The wonderful Jackie Clark, the titanium backbone of The Aunties Collective*, has much to say about those grim little containers of acidic judgement.

Along with some pretty stark insight into life for women and children who have to leave unsafe homes at Christmas time, Jackie’s Facebook tomato treatise was the perfect metaphor for the research I have done on what works best to overcome the terrible effects of economic vulnerability and family stress.

How economic vulnerability effects wellbeing: it’s about stress

When I started writing a book about what works to ensure all children thrive, what hit me was how much my culturally embedded prejudices about families on low incomes fought against what I was learning, which was that families and children on low incomes experience a raft of negative outcomes because economic stress breaks us all. It breaks our ability to think clearly, to recognise and take on opportunities as they present themselves and to manage our relationship problems. For children, it breaks their very biology – the science proves that children experiencing poverty-related stress develop differently from well-resourced children. Poverty is a brutal task master.

Perhaps I wanted to believe that I was different? That under intense pressure, if the worst happened and I hit the financial doldrums I would respond “positively to the challenge” and be OK. Implicit in such ideas is that somehow I would be – I was – a “better”person. We all want to believe that if life gets awful we would be our best selves, but actually when bad things happen often we are just our least selves. Under financial stress our mental and physical resources tank, and while our intentions may remain good, our ability to fulfil those intentions trickles away.

All parents want the best for their children

We all want the best for our children. At Christmas we are all under pressure to deliver on those parental intentions, and for those on low incomes the financial fire you have been fighting becomes a furnace.

One of the ways that New Zealanders try to help other parents fulfil those intentions is by donating goods: presents for kids, food to food banks and refuges. It’s the humanity that we share which drives us to want to help others at this time. Unfortunately, our good intentions do not always match people’s needs.

When Jackie wrote her treatise on tinned tomatoes she gave all sorts of practical explanations why the women she supports don’t need tinned tomatoes. But she was also telling us that while financial stress is a common factor in the lives of many of those women, the best solutions cannot be determined by other people. And that is exactly what the research shows: self-determination really matters in issues of poverty.

Why your tinned tomatoes may be no good to me

For each family under pressure there is a different back story, a different set of circumstances, different skills, different “lacks” driving the stress. Some families face a lot of debt, some families have accommodation issues, some families need childcare, some families need food, some families need clothes, some families need time, others need work that pays better and is closer to home. What you need when you are under pressure is not always going to be what I need.

It is exactly why the highest quality studies show us that when parents on low incomes (especially women) are given money without strings attached (not conditions or behaviours to undertake), their children thrive. Over and over again these studies show that children’s health, their educational achievement, their mental wellbeing improves. We also see improved mental health in mothers themselves.

It’s not rocket science really, it is addressing the main issue – the lack of money. What unconditional cash recognises is that it is lack of money, not lack of intention or care, that has led to a family’s suffering. And some other very powerful studies show that when parents receive additional cash they spend it on their children’s needs (all this research is discussed in detail in my book).

Money has power in our society – including the power of escape

David Hanna runs the Wesley Community Action in Wellington. His organisation has a very supportive but unconditional approach to the assistance they give people. They do not keep records of the number of times someone has accessed their food bank, but they will ask if they want to help in the community garden. David and his amazing staff have worked for years to support people, many of whom also happen to be in gangs, support their children in the way that works for them.

When I first met David a few years back he said something that really struck me – that money has power in our society now in a way it did not have before. He explained that, while donations of goods were very good at helping people 70 years ago, modern societal structures mean they are less effective today.

Money has always represented freedom, but it does so even more today. For a woman trying to break free of an abusive relationship, money represents escape. With money there is an alternative life she can build for herself and her children, debts she can free herself from and choices she can make on her own. But the way we support women in need has not yet caught up with that reality

Our support system fails to acknowledge the power of money

One of the issues Jackie Clark highlights is that she cannot give many women cash or even gift vouchers to get what they need because it will count as “income” if they are in receipt of any sort of benefit. With this additional “income”, benefit payments abate. It is a policy that directly contravenes the science on what would actually help people leave the benefit system altogether, and to help their children find their wings and thrive. It simply makes no sense, and is frustrating because it is based on the deeply ingrained bias that many of us carry: that parents on low incomes cannot be trusted; that their financial situation, their stress, is of their own making. We too often mistake the symptoms of poverty for the causes. The causes of course are complex, but they have much to do with the choices policy makers have made over the years – choices that have created a very difficult set of economic, employment and living conditions for people trying to thrive.

It is a bitter irony for families on low incomes that they are punished for policy decisions made by others – and then punished again if they accept the most powerful tool that would overcome the effect of those decisions. Money.

Christmas is hard, why do we make it harder? And no more fucking tinned tomatoes please!

As a side note, I find there is little to like about the tinned tomato. As the brilliant chef Kelda Haines of Nikau Café fame pointed out recently, when you used tinned tomatoes you just end up with a dish that tastes like tinned tomato.

*The Aunties Collective is an amazing organisation working with women and children who find themselves in the most rubbish of circumstances and needing support. Please go to their Givealittle page and donate whatever you can during this time of year that can be hard for so many.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw  is a researcher and public communicator. She consults on effective evidence-based policy, and helps people and organisations engage the power of good storytelling to change minds. Follow Dr Jess on Facebook.

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