Saturday, September 02, 2006

"Of poverty and priorities"

That's the title of an extraordinary article in today's DomPost. It makes for compelling reading. The writer, Martin van Beynen and photographer, Kirk Hargreaves, toured the country looking for the worst poverty and talking to people about their circumstances. His experience is very much what I've found volunteering. And the volunteers and social workers he spoke to are also fairly cynical but keep on going. You cannot not want to help some people but it's damn near impossible to get them to change their priorities. Here are some passages (with the odd comment from me in italics);

(But) in most areas, benefit dependence, criminality, drug and alcohol addiction are not the norm. In the areas we visited, they are.

We find the poor. The worthy poor, and plenty who are poor through their own fault.

A long-time South Island foodbank worker says, "If I was cynical, you would say they all carry a cellphone, they all have a dog, and the majority of them have Sky TV and they smoke. Where are their priorities?"

"They won't go to budget advice because budget advice will address those issues. And it's not just a plain phone - it's got to be an eleborate telephone."

We can vouch for the fact that the stereotypical beneficiary, shy of work and yet driving a good car, drinking, smoking and watching SKY TV, exists in good number. It is a hard heart, however, that doesn't sympathise when the circumstances are known. Even if the head shakes in disbelief. (I know that feeling well).

Ben, 20, of Gisborne, an agreeable Mongrel Mob member recently patched, has a one-year-old, a partner and is on the dole. His dog, a faint-hearted mongrel, tucks into a fish head as his partner hangs out the washing. He agrees work is plentiful in the area but he's not yet ready to "commit" to fulltime work, especially in the wet and cold. The work he is talking about is often temporary and his benefit is guaranteed every week, he says. As we leave a carload of his friends arrive. Big men, none working.

In Waitangirua, near Porirua, Meagan Darwin, 27 - mother of five aged 12 to 5 - still spends $35 a week on smokes. Her power is often turned off and she regularly runs low on food. Twenty dollars a week goes to repay a benefit she fraudulently claimed.

"Smoking is my only luxury. Take it away and what have I got?" she says.

Ms Darwin's children are challenging but happy and well-cared for. She has just about given up drinking because "I'm putting my kids first."

(In Dunedin) Mrs Mehau has three children and another on the way. Mr Mehau works as a security guard for 30 hours a week, earning $11-50 an hour. Mrs Mehau, who had her first baby at 16, has never been off the benefit. "It does feel good not having to answer to anyone, but I get worried how we will make ends meet, " she says."I can see why people do benefit fraud. It's so much easier." (She should know.)

They have a huge new TV, a dog and an old six-cylinder Ford Fairlane. The TV and the new washing machine and dryer are on hire purchase. Recently they had to use the foodbank. In some ways they are the classic beneficiary family, their own worst enemy. (I've said this directly to one girl but you aren't telling them anything they don't know.)

We see many beneficiaries eking out a meagre and strained living. Those living honestly will always struggle unless they budget tightly and live frugally.

Several beneficiaries admitted outright fraud to me. One had a boyfriend living with her, but not officially. He had his own state house (his own?)which he rented out to illegal immigrants.

Many times we are reminded how small NZ is...... no one is that far from a medical centre or a major town. Nowhere is so remote that services cannot be accessed. Ruatoria has a courthouse, a police station with four fulltime staff, its own Work and Income office anda health centre.

We expect to find worse. It seems as if some areas have had a clean up just for us.... We go to Clendon, which is the new Otara of South Auckland. The area is rent with gang violence, domestic assaults and dependence. Yet the house are only ten years old and still in good condition.

South Auckland social worker Emelio Estaban, who has worked in the slums of Chile says, "The outside look all nice and new. The hidden part of the picture is indoors. The problem lies not so much with the buildings but the families inside them."

In Kaiti, Gisborne, a (shop) attendant explains Mates beer - $5-90 for two litres - is bought only by the "alkies". The tipple of choice for the area, one of the poorest in New Zealand with a huge domestic violence problem, is Steinlager and Purple Goannas, she says.

In some areas, people,often young mothers with big families, appear to lead lives of utter grimness. In a state house ghetto in Gisborne, I approach a Maori holding a child on her hip. When she speaks I see her teeth are mostly black stumps (probably thumped out of her). She is 25 with six children. She says she can't talk to us about her life. So bad you can't talk to us? "Yes" she says.

Most tragically we find the mentally ill and the lonely living rough without the support of friends or family.

In Kaikohe on a bitter Sunday we go to Purdy St and find Katrina Witehira, 41 and Philip Robinson, 44, paying $130 a week for a ramshackle house with warped plywood covering many windows.

Both on invalids benefit because of mental health problems, they have run out of money. The power is off and there is no food. The floor lets in a cold draught through a hole in a cupboard and you can see the sky through the roof. The toilet is blocked and they sleep on a thin mattress on the floor. (Hey, but at least they are out in the community aye).

In the end, the poor defy description or generalisation. In the end, there is much to be hopeful about. (I wish I was so optimistic. The recurring theme through the piece is the presence of so many children living in awful situations. The next generation of poor, dependent and often dysfunctional people is growing up now.)


Oswald Bastable said...

Bring back the workhouse!

These idiots won't try, make stupid choices and have their priorities totally screwed up.

To refuse to support oneself- to take on none of society's responsibilities, one relinqishes the rights and privileges of a citizen. In effect, they should become a voluntary inmate.

IF they want the taxpayers support, they should make a declaration of paupery and enter an institution where their lives will be run for them!

The basics will be provided and they will have to WORK for those. No luxuries, no vote and not a lot of free choices.

Of course, they are free to leave- but no dole!

Anonymous said...

Six kids only 25 and on the benefit, all her kids are probably going to be a menace to society. You want to stop people like her to stop having kids, then don't give a benefit for the additional kids she has on the benefit, simple.


Anonymous said...

Here is one major reason for the problem, in the words of the beneficiary herself: "It does feel good not having to answer to anyone, but I get worried how we will make ends meet, "

Not having to answer to anyone! As she sees it getting money from the state brings no responsibility with it. The money is handed out and nobody cares what happens to it or checks up on the recipients. Labour passes out the cash and then abrogates responsibility for seeing how it is spent. There is literally no one to answer to!

Brian Smaller said...

I was amazed that the poor woman in Porirua could spend $35 a week on cigarettes because it was "her only luxury" I probably earn an awful lot more than her but only have $25 a week sanity money. I must be doing something wrong. Shit, we don't even have an X-Box but an old second hand PSII.

Unknown said...

There is the common theme of "needing" Sky as their "only" luxury; while many workers paying for their lifestyle do not have Sky as they cannot afford it.

The other sad part is that many of the beneficiaries have many "only" luxuries - smoking, drinking, sky and the game console at least.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Gloria, you made a reference to Blair and intervention, on an earlier thread. I am assuming you mean Tony Blair. Do you have a link for the information?

Anonymous said...

I don't have a link Lindsay as the article was in Friday's Manawatu Standard, 'Blair: Sort out the kids early' (Sept 1). p.7.

As it's relatively short I've copied it;

London: Prime Minister Tony Blair said today the Government should intervene 'at a very early stage' to stop the children of problem families growing up into troublemakers themselves.

Mr Blair said teenage mothers could be required to accept state assistance with bringing up their children and could face sanctions if they refused. Intervention could even be taken 'pre-birth'.

"If we are not prepared to predict and intervene far more early then there are children that are going to grow up in families that we know perfectly well are completely dysfunctional, and the kids a few years down the line are going to be a menace to society and actually a threat to themselves," he told BBC.

He said the Government could say to an unmarried teenager mother who was not in a stable relationship: "Here is the support we are prepared to offer you, but we do need to keep a careful watch on you and how your situation is developing because all the indicators are that your type of situation can lead to problems in the future."

Conservative policy director Oliver Letwin said more state intervention was not the answer.

"The only realistic way forward lies with social enterprise, charities and voluntary groups.

It is no good the Government simply trying to run peoples' lives."