The cost of a bowl of Weet-Bix

One of the most dishonest arguments the right ever put forward on the subject of poverty is around one of the simplest things in life: a bowl of Weet-Bix.

Yesterday Nikki Kaye approvingly re-posted a letter to the editor which illustrates the dishonesty, saying in part:

I costed three healthy breakfasts: two free-range scrambled eggs on lightly buttered mixed grain toast with salt and pepper cost $1.39 and took five minutes to prepare; quick-cook porridge with a banana and a sprinkling of brown sugar cost 94c and four minutes’ time. And three Weet-Bix and milk with a sprinkling of sugar cost 55c and took two minutes … do we really want to accept that 55c and two minutes’ time is too high a threshold to expect for parents’ dedication to their children?

As I said to Kaye on Twitter:

It’s a truly heartless – and illogical – way to look at the question of why so many Kiwi kids are going to school hungry. Obviously you can’t buy milk in 100mL bottles or toast one piece at a time. And making breakfast for yourself is, I understand, a very different situation to preparing it with even one child, much less two or three, all in need of waking, clothing, feeding, and getting out the door – even with two parents around to run things.

On her Facebook page, you can see Kaye trying to walk herself back out of the nasty, judgemental tone, claiming she was just supporting a brave mum who did a great job in trying circumstances. But we all know exactly what message the right are sending when they approvingly tweet this kind of diatribe:

Poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. Poor people are just greedy and ungrateful. Beneficiaries are spending YOUR TAXPAYER DOLLARS on booze and fags. See, we need to crack down on them!

An excellent response came from @NoelZeng, who linked to this report by Auckland City Mission about the realities of life for people living in economic poverty:

Ten years ago people accessed food parcels when they experienced a crisis in their lives. Today, thousands of families rely on food banks as their regular source of food as money for food is considered to be discretionary spending by many. The increasing long-term use of the Mission’s food bank is a growing concern.

And, whilst we have an understanding of why people experience financial hardship, there is little understanding of what stops people moving out of poverty. With a prevailing opinion held by many that those living in poverty do so simply because they lack the initiative to free themselves from it, there is little impetus or pressure to address what is for many thousands of New Zealand families a desperate and deteriorating set of circumstances.

Of course the people who are already firmly stuck in the “55c and two minutes’ time!” mindset won’t be convinced by stories like the ones told in that report. There’s always something you’re doing wrong, some obvious area where you haven’t cut your standard of living down to the absolute bone.

The thing is, you can’t argue with the numbers.

Using WINZ’s online “check your eligibility” tool, I imagined myself as a solo mum with two kids, aged 4 and 5, living in Wellington, paying a (miraculous) $200 a week in rent. Healthy (thank god), not supporting sick or elderly relatives (thank god), but out of work (thanks, National) and definitely single (yes, WINZ, I’m sure, but thanks for popping up that dire warning about relationship fraud.)

End result: I may be entitled to Sole Parent Support of $299.45 per week, and possibly the Accommodation Supplement.

Unfortunately you can’t use the online tool to assess your Accommodation Support if you’re on a benefit (because what I need is some terrible web-design to add stress to my life) so I lied (typical beneficiary) and got an estimate of $72.

So my hypothetical alternate-universe solo mum self could hypothetically get $371.45 per week of your taxpayer dollars. But my hypothetical (very optimistic) rent was $200. And Otago University’s annual Food Cost Survey suggests that just to meet basic needs, I need to spend $137 on food per week – $59 for me, $44 for the five-year-old, $34 for the four-year-old.

Leaving me a princely sum of $34.45 to cover non-food groceries, transport, clothing, power, phone bill or prepay cellphone (need a phone number to look for work!), and any unexpected costs that might arise.

I literally couldn’t do it. Could you? Could Nikki Kaye?

 

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