What does 'an average Kiwi family' look like? video

JASON DORDAY/Stuff.co.nz

Auckland has the highest proportion of families that are comprised of couples with two kids under the age of 18 like Kelly and Rick McQuinlan with their children Blake 6 and Cody 2.

When Donald Trump won the United States presidency, pundits despaired about politicians and the media being out of touch with "middle America".

The income gap between the rich and poor is widening worldwide. In America, research from the Pew Research Center shows its middle class is shrinking; 50 per cent of that nation is now considered middle-income, down from 61 per cent in 1971. 

New Zealand inequality expert and the author of Wealth in New Zealand, Max Rashbrooke, says we do not have the same levels of extreme inequality here. Nor do we have comparable research that shows fewer middle-income households.

The average Auckland family is comprised of couples with two kids under the age of 18 like Kelly and Rick McQuinlan with ...
JASON DORDAY/FAIRFAX NZ

The average Auckland family is comprised of couples with two kids under the age of 18 like Kelly and Rick McQuinlan with their children Blake 6 and Cody 2.

However, the rise in inequality in this country between the mid-80s to the late 90s was the biggest in the developed world. Three decades on, the legacies of tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor and jobs lost to technology and globalisation are having an impact.

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The most recent figures, from the Ministry of Social Development's 2016 Household Income Report, show the highest-earning 10 per cent of Kiwis used to make five to six times more than the lowest 10 per cent. Now, their income is 9 times higher.

Kelly and Rick McQuinlan with their children Blake 6 and Cody 2, at their North Shore rental property.
JASON DORDAY/FAIRFAX NZ

Kelly and Rick McQuinlan with their children Blake 6 and Cody 2, at their North Shore rental property.

Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox says the twin factors of low incomes and housing unaffordability mean more Kiwis are struggling.

"We are finding more families that we can't find a solution for, it's hard to balance their budget when there's just not enough money," she says.

"Incomes haven't risen significantly, and housing costs are becoming impossible. Sometimes we're seeing housing costs that are 50-60 per cent of the family income, and that doesn't leave enough to live on."

Basically: "We are finding more families in the lower to middle income bracket who are finding it impossible to cope."

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This also means an "increase in misery" for the poorest Kiwis, Rashbrooke says. "There are more people struggling, and that at least in part means that WINZ is taking an unnecessarily punitive approach towards dealing with beneficiaries."

So why should we care? Well a high level of inequality can mean the population is less socially connected, Rashbrooke says. "People begin to live very different lives. They lose that sense of other people's lives, they lose that sense of empathy for each other so trust declines. Society is less cohesive."

It also creates an uneven playing field; the children of less privileged parents are not as likely to succeed, he says.

We do care. In the 2016 Mood of the Nation poll, New Zealanders voted inequality and poverty as the most important national issues. (Earlier UMR research also found the richer people get, the less they see inequality as a problem.)

So what does an average New Zealand family look like, and how are they coping?

We chose three family types highlighted in a report by Superu, the Government's Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, as being among the most common family unit in that region and across New Zealand. We asked them to tell us about their lives.

GISBORNE     

Diane Moeke and her children Te O Tawhara, 4, four-month-old Ngakonui, Operuwairere, 1, and Tuameko, 3. Photo: Supplied

Diane Moeke, 26,Te O Tawhara, 4, Tuameko, 3, Operuwairere, 1, and Ngakonui, 4 months.
Income bracket: $10-15,000 a year.

Gisborne has the highest number of single-parent families with children under 18 in the country, at 22 per cent.
The national average is 13 per cent.

When the house gets so messy she can hardly stand it, Diane Moeke and her four children all sleep in the lounge. Te O Tawhara, 4, Tuameko, 3, Operuwairere, 1, and four-month-old Ngakonui will have a marae-style sleepover with mum.

"I get really tired," Diane says. "People say 'Oh you can do it because you're young' but I feel older than my age. When I feel like that at nighttime I just put my children to bed and then I go to my room and cry myself to sleep.

"And then I wake up with puffy eyes, and get the kids to school."

Diane, 26, lives in a Housing New Zealand property in Gisborne and raises her four children, all under the age of four, alone. She is on a benefit and does not get child support. 

After having her first baby at 21, Diane struggled to organise and fund contraception. But she doesn't want pity. "I'm one of those people who don't like people feeling sorry for me. I made the mistake because I kept sleeping with the father and having them. Even though my kids are not mistakes."

Maori is Diane's first language, and she is currently in her last year of teacher training with Te Wananga o Raukawa to be a primary school Te Reo teacher. Once her children are asleep she studies till around 1am, waking with the kids at dawn before walking the three youngest to daycare.

Money is tight. "I pay my rent, I pay my bills, I pay the daycare and then whatever is left behind - maybe $100-$150 - goes on food. I try to spread it out so that lasts two weeks, and the week after I can use the money for clothes and shoes.

"I'm pretty much planning out my money every day, every week. Sometimes I trip up on that and we don't have enough food, and I usually go and suck up to my parents and eat out of their cupboards."

Diane credits her survival to not drinking or doing drugs, which she quit when she became pregnant with her first. "I found it doesn't help me raise my children. I'm not better than other mums, but some of my friends can't handle and turn to drinking or smoking.

"I know that most of my friends [do that] because of their background and the stuff they are going through with their relationships, and that's how they cope." 

Being raised within her culture has helped, she says. "You know your whakapapa, you know who you are and where you came from and it gives you a bit of a guide. Kapa haka is one of my favourite things, it helps me to express myself. I have friends who are not really in tune with their roots, their Maoritanga, and they go into that gangster life where they all praise another culture."

But the stigma of being a single parent does make it hard. "People are so judgmental. If they see a baby on the footpath, not even going on to the road, they will ring the cops.

"Sometimes when I take my children out in public they play up, and there's all these eyes on you. People are like 'why do you have so many kids?' and I feel pretty shit. I just smile on the outside. It doesn't matter what anyone says; they're not the ones living with you, they're not living your life."

Once a year Diane goes to the East Coast Vibes concert, but she has never had a night away from her kids. "I'd miss them too much anyway."

Is she happy? "I make do with my life. Sometimes I think that I'm just surviving each day with my children. Sometimes I can't look after the kids and keep up with the house. When my house is a mess I feel like a bad mum, and when my house is clean I feel like a bad mum because I've spent all that time cleaning my house and not looking after my children.

"I think I'm happy. I find myself better off than others, so I can't moan too much. I'm able to cope and try to handle things instead of flipping out."

WEST COAST

Mike and Sue Roper own On Yer Bike. "We started with nothing," says Mike. Photo: Supplied

Mike Roper, 56, and Sue Roper, 50
Income bracket: $250,000+ a year.

The most common family type on the West Coast/Tasman is a couple over the age of 50 years. These families make up 40 per cent of all West Coast/Tasman families, and 30 per cent nationally.

It's mid-morning on the West Coast, and Mike Roper ducks out of the Skype screen to great the postie. His childhood sweetheart Sue grins, yelling a cheery "Hi!" from the reception of the couple's trail-riding business, where we are talking.

She is framed by the haphazard patterns of the quilts she sews as a side venture, the hanging designs in sync with the busy morning.

"My grandparents moved here in 1917," Mike, 56, says proudly, bouncing back into the frame."We're celebrating 100 years this year."

Mike and Sue, 50, had three young children when they bought the farm from Mike's mother in the early 90s. Mike worked as a taxi driver to supplement the sheep and beef farm's small income.

In 1997 they started building tracks, bought a few bikes, and On Yer Bike was established. It wasn't a steady climb - 2007 saw them having to lay off several staff as the financial crash, the Bali bombings and then September 11 hit tourism.

"We're very secure now but it's taken a long time, because we started with nothing and had to build up what we have through hard work," Mike says. "But it's paid off."

They now take up to a dozen groups of tourists each day through the farm's labyrinth of mud tracks, on a fleet of motorbikes.

The pair met at a youth group party in their teens, and are closely involved with the local Anglican church in Greymouth, five minutes away. They have two sons and four grandchildren living nearby, with a daughter in Nelson.

They love their community and lifestyle. "This is a great place. What makes me happy? Loving each other, the love of our family and my wider church family," Sue says.

"Faith is very important to us."

Their spare time is spent with family; on Thursdays,  Sue meets with her stitching group, the Grey Valley Quilters, and Mike might go for a ride on his BMW F650 Dakar.

They worry about the local drug culture, and the demise of the family unit. "I think the way families are going is pretty bad, so many broken families and broken homes," says Sue. "Over here, it's the parents taking the children to school on P."

Mike is nodding. "You know what would really help NZ families from the ground up? For pre-schoolers to stay at home with their mothers for the first five years," Sue goes on. "The mothers would be more relaxed and it would be better for the kids."

Other headaches are work-related; it is frustrating how much time they have to spend meeting workplace health and safety standards. "I think OSH have over-regulated and there's too much paperwork and not enough common sense," Mike says.

"But generally, we love our life here. It's beautiful."

AUCKLAND

Kelly and Rick McQuinlan with their children Blake 6 and Cody 2. "We don't feel middle-class." Photo: Jason Dorday

Kelly and Rick McQuinlan and children Blake, 6, and Cody, 2.
Income bracket: $70-80,000 a year.

The average Auckland family has two parents and at least one child under 18. This is the biggest family type in Auckland, at 37 per cent, and nationwide, at 34 per cent.

Kelly McQuinlan needs to go to the doctor, but she can't afford it this week. The mum-of-two looks over at her sons Blake, 6, and Cody, 2.

"I have to really time when I go, and suffer for the couple of months before I can get there," she says. "We earn too much to get a community services card - tomorrow I'm going to ring and see if I can work out a payment plan."

McQuinlan is a stay-at-home mum. Her husband Rick, in his shirt sleeves having rushed to make this interview from work, works in IT sales. The couple earn around the median household income, which is $73,500 after tax.

"We don't feel middle-class," says Kelly. "We'd love to buy a house, but it's an unachievable dream. We can't afford daycare, and we can forget about savings. If we do have some spare money one week we'll buy petrol vouchers, because we don't want to be stuck once a fortnight without petrol for Rick to go to work."

Kelly and Rick were living in Wellington until eight years ago, when Rick was made redundant during the financial crisis. They moved to Australia, then home in  2012 to be closer to Kelly's parents, who live on Auckland's North Shore.

"We wanted to have the New Zealand lifestyle for our kids, and wanted them to have the freedom of being Kiwi, the beaches and outdoors," Kelly says. "Now we go to the beach several times a weekend, which is great. But we can forget about financial stablility."

The family lived in Kelly's parents' basement for two years in an attempt to save up for a deposit, but Auckland prices - then around $650,000 - continued to rise above their reach.

Finally, after looking at more than 50 properties, they found a rental in Northcross for $540 a week. This is about 50 per cent of their weekly earnings.

Takeaways, family holidays and evenings out are rare. Health is another financial squeeze; Kelly suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of disorders, which means she dislocates bones frequently. Her specialist is not covered by the public system.

In some ways, the McQuinlans feel discriminated against for earning a decent wage.

They don't, for example, qualify for Working for Families. "It would almost be better if we earned less," Kelly says. "WINZ don't care about middle income families. When Rick lost his job in Wellington I went to WINZ to see if I could get money for food, but they said it would be eight weeks.

"People that are low income can get that, they can just walk up to WINZ and say 'Hey, I want a food package' and get one, but it's not that easy for us. It's not good to see people in poverty, but it should be fair across the board."

Kelly also believes the school decile system is unfair.  "Because of our suburb, [the school] is decile 10, but we are struggling to pay for this area. It costs a lot for Blake to go to a public school here - we're lucky someone gave him a uniform. Decile 1 schools get given everything, shoes and raincoats, which is absolutely fantastic - but what about us?"

Immigration is also of concern, particularly where it relates to house prices. "I think if they're [immigrants] going to be coming to New Zealand they need to be coming in to work, not just coming in and buying houses," Kelly says.

 "If you're going to be bringing in business, even if it's a nail salon, you should employ anyone who needs a job not just your own family. They need to be integrated more - they should be given lessons on driving and how to speak English when they move here."

It's closing in on dinner time, and the boys are getting restless. Rick sums up.. "We are comfortable, we have a roof over our heads. We make our compromises. We are getting by on one income, but there is absolutely no chance of saving for a house," he says.

"If I got made redundant, we'd be four weeks away from not being able to pay rent."

 - Stuff.co.nz

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