Privilege check on aisle five

01:52, Jul 26 2013

Ah, Shelley Bridgeman. I've avoided her column for the past two years, since she said that only methamphetamine-fuelled beneficiaries should be required to breastfeed. Yes, really. But I couldn't dodge her latest attempt at being relatable.

(A brief summary: She went to buy groceries without her wallet, and exceeded the cash she had on hand. She had to suffer the indignity of people thinking she might be poor or disorganised, as she rummaged through her groceries choosing what to return. Spoiler alert: She kept the hummus, ready-stuffed pasta and Metro magazine.)

Fifty-five dollars for a spontaneous grocery shop is a significant chunk of the average family's entire weekly grocery budget. It's easy to say "I'd never had to edit my supermarket shop to fit available funds before but I know that it's a problem many people face", but it demonstrates little comprehension of the vast majority of New Zealand families, let alone those living in poverty. 

Almost every adult in New Zealand has a skill they use while shopping, called "keeping track". It doesn't have to be perfect; just round up to the nearest dollar. You avoid the awkwardness of having to make decisions about what to jettison at the checkout. Most of us do it as we go, placing conscious limits on what we put in our trolley. If you have to tell your child "I'm sorry, we can't afford that right now", they'll be okay. Really.

It is a rare and privileged family who gets to make shopping decisions based solely on the criteria "we either needed or wanted it". Most New Zealand families have to prioritise their needs, at least to some extent, and rarely get to the 'wants'. As well, most of us are balancing our immediate needs against future needs. There might be a great special on tinned tomatoes, but if we buy six of them, we can't afford a new toothbrush. Never mind that we'll have to buy tomatoes at the usual price next week.

Deciding between fresh pasta and magazines is not "a really difficult decision". It is "a really difficult decision" when you have to choose between toilet paper and milk, a kilo of rice or a rubbish bag, toothpaste or a loaf of bread. It's incredibly condescending to say "It must be beyond difficult to have to make tough on-the-spot decisions about basics". Tough decisions while shopping have nothing to do with "apparent poverty".

The patronising pseudo-empathy in "perhaps in future I'll be more understanding about people who needlessly delay progress at the supermarket checkout" really pushes my buttons. As that weaselly "perhaps" indicates, her "fresh thankfulness" will expire quicker than pesto-and-ricotta-filled ravioli.

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