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?

 

Labour will end the farce of “voluntary” school donations

When I was little, I went to a very well-to-do decile 10 public primary school. The kind of place situated in a neighbourhood full of private schools and a little bit insecure about it. So we did our best to fit it, with assemblies every Friday at which the national anthem was sung in both English and te reo Māori, archaic uniforms (no pants for the girls!) and “fees”.

Hang on. I did say “public” primary school, didn’t I?

Yes, my public, state-funded primary school must have been one of the first to start referring to voluntary donations as “fees”. In the school newsletter, in letters home to my parents, and in conversations where teachers would pull aside nine-year-old children like myself and deliver a lecture about how we “hadn’t paid our fees”.

I felt terrible. I wasn’t paying my way! I was going to be expelled! You had to pay your fees! But my mother sat me down and explained that it wasn’t a fee. It was a donation. The fine print on the forms they sent me home with spelled it out … barely. They had no right to demand payment – and no right to bully a child with

Back then I was baffled (now I get outraged). It wasn’t a fee. So why was it called a fee? Why was my teacher checking names off a list and hectoring children to pay? Why to this day are schools engaging in bullying, stigmatising tactics like attaching tags to children’s bags to show who’s paid and who hasn’t?

Education is a basic human right, and every child deserves to receive the same basic level of it. It is criminal that schools put this kind of pressure on kids and their families – and more criminal that some of them probably have to due to chronic underfunding.

So imagine my righteous joy this morning to discover that the Labour Party agrees with me.

Labour will provide an annual grant of $100 per student to schools that stop asking parents for “voluntary” donations to help fund their day-to-day spending, Labour Leader David Cunliffe says.

Like I said on Twitter, education needs to be meaningfully free. That means proper funding for our schools and an end to the farce of “voluntary donations”.

It takes a child to raise a country – so Tick for Kids

Overshadowed by the  political smears that have dominated the past few days, the Tick for Kids campaign was launched (video) to put our children at the centre of the election campaign.

In their media release supporting the campaign, the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services nailed the inequality issue:

NZCCSS is calling for government policies that lift the household income of vulnerable families so they can provide a healthy standard of living for their children. Policies such as paying a universal child benefit (e.g. by extending the In-Work Tax Credit to parents who are not in work) will help reduce child poverty. Policies like these make a contribution to reducing inequality and consequently lifting children out of poverty.

Other issues in the campaign are health, education, disability, housing and refugee and migrant children.

We know that the right can’t tackle these issues seriously. We’ve seen the situation for Kiwi children only get worse over the past five years.  Punitive crackdowns on beneficiary families, school closures, eroding incomes, refusing to expand the Food in Schools programme to all schools, running down early childhood education: the National-ACT-United Future-Maori coalition has been bad for kids.

Meanwhile, Labour has the BestStart policy to ensure all families with newborns get a basic level of support, restore funding to ECE and provide free antenatal classes. The Greens have a package of policies including after-school care and free GP visits for all under-18s. Mana believes feeding the kids should be our first priority as a nation.

And a leftwing coalition which reduces inequality, raises wages, rebuilds our social safety net and creates meaningful economic growth benefits all Kiwis and their families.

What do you reckon?