Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Are you listening?

There’s been a bit of attention in our local newspaper around the issue of poverty in our city.  This has generated some interesting conversations with various people about the issue.  This opinion article by Michael Gorman makes some excellent points.  The sad reality is that the stories that are published in the newspaper represent the tip of the iceberg.

I find myself straddling the tracks somewhat, between the “haves” and the “have-not's”. 

I grew up in a middle class family, with parents who were able to support and encourage me through school, and tertiary study as well.  My husband was forced through his family’s circumstances to leave school at 15 with no qualifications. His parents hadn’t known how to help him learn and support him in doing well, since they had also left school at a young age to enter the unskilled workforce.

I work in a professional environment, and many of my social contacts are on a “comfortable” income.  Yet I live in a neighbourhood just around the corner from Struggle Street.  My children have classmates who would be among those classified as being in poverty.

Of those I know, they are not families who are irresponsible or lazy or wasting their money on smokes or booze, which are the accusations the “Better-offs” often come out with.  They work, but on a minimum wage.  They have never had the opportunity of education to get the next step up the employment ladder.

Some families are on welfare benefits, through ill health, redundancy or relationship breakdown.  None of the beneficiaries I know want to be there, yet dealing with Work and Income to try to get what assistance they are in need of is a nightmare of condemnation and belittling put-downs.  If you can get though an interview with a case worker without ending up in tears you’re doing really well.  It’s easier to not ask.

These families are careful budgeters, where every cent is accounted for.  They are skilled at making a few dollars go a long way.  But in the last 4 years there has been a steady increase in the cost of food, rent, petrol and power, with no change in their income.  There is no room in that budget for any savings, for putting aside a contingency fund, so when there’s an unexpected trip to the doctor, or the rent goes up again, that’s enough to tip the balance from “coping” to “not coping,”

When I try to describe what some of these families are going though to my “better-off” friends, it’s like trying to describe what the Christchurch earthquakes were like to Aucklanders – despite their best intentions they just don’t get it.

This is not a political blog, and I don’t think there is an easy solution from a political point of view.  All I do know is the current government’s policy of “do nothing” seems to be achieving nothing.  Until those in the position of making those decisions actually take the time to get to know, listen to and understand those having to live on Struggle Street they’re not going to be able to find a solution that makes a real difference where it’s needed.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s nearly Christmas.  For some families it’s going to be yet another lean Christmas, a stressful and depressing time when they see all the glittery stuff the retailers are pushing at them.  No parent wants their child to miss out, yet even buying simple presents for the children can only be done by incurring further debt or else finding some second hand things for presents for their children and hoping there are no unexpected expenses this year.

Christmas is when God came to us, became part of our world, rubbed shoulders with us, and understood humanity by living with us as one of us.  He didn’t come to palaces, to the elite, he came to a peasant girl, born in homelessness.  His arrival was announced to shepherds not nobles.  His ministry was characterised by compassion for the needy.  His call to us is to be His representatives in this world, to continue His ministry to those who need it most. 

The Christmas message should be one that’s most relevant to the disadvantaged, yet they’re the very ones who struggle to afford to celebrate it. 

There's more to charity and compassion than a quick hand out to appease your own conscience.  It needs to start with respect, listening and understanding. What about you? How can you bring His presence into those who need it most in your community this Christmas?


  1. Thanks Claudia. I really like your comment about describing the ChCh earthquakes to Aucklanders.
    As one of the 'better offs' it is too easy to look at a few individuals and think that others who fit that stereotype are in a similar situation. While we realise that there are still a few who don't make as much effort as others and know how to get all the benefits they possibly can from WINNZ (we would call them bludgers), there are many who are in the 'have nots' through no fault of their own.
    It is too easy to label people when you don't know them, even if you try hard not to stereotype others. When you spend the time getting to know people better, that's when you see the 'whole picture' and your perceptions are changed.

    1. Thanks for your comment Helen. On some ways I suspect the stories in the media can reinforce the stereotypes because they tend to report the extreme cases where there are often obvious gaps in the story that can make readers more suspicious than empathetic.

  2. The poverty you write about is the true problem. Those who want to work hard but still struggle. Pass the word on - dairy farms in the South Island want kiwi workers so they don't have to import Filipinos (not that there's anything wrong with that because Filipinos work hard and fit in well, but the still want kiwis who will work hard). Dairy farming is an excellent career because they usually provide accommodation so you don't pay rent, and on top of that they pay well too. Not to mention other benefits such as working outdoors, working with animals, living in safe rural areas, yet having access to good education for the kids and career progression. More than one poverty stricken family has broken into prosperity (yes actual prosperity, not "just doing ok") by this way. Another place is mining on the west coast. It's got the same benefits as dairy such as training for unskilled people but with the added benefit of mega cheap housing so you can easily afford to buy a house so that's even better than dairy farming. Don't move to Christchurch though - the rent is excessive, although it's easy to find good work, but not paying the same as dairy farming or mining. Moving to find work is always hard but it's much better than living in poverty!