There's more to poverty than a lack of money

01:33, Dec 14 2013
Nellie Hunt and John Beattie
THRILLED: Nellie Hunt accepts keys to a new home from landlord John Beattie.

If you read The Press this week you will have had a nasty reminder of life on Struggle Street.

The coverage has mainly been about poverty, but lots of people live on Struggle Street. Some live with terrible disabilities or mental illness. Some with constant pain and discomfort, others with grief, fear and loneliness. Some have to care for a mentally or physically disabled son or daughter around the clock. Some regularly get beaten up by a partner and other households are blighted by addictions, abuse and crime. As hardship goes, being poor, on its own, is well down the list.

Coverage like this helps to keep the plight of the less well off on the radar but nothing much is going to change overnight. Perhaps the most worrying aspect brought into focus is that a reasonable working wage provides little buffer against life's misfortunes.

van beynen
Martin van Beynen

This newspaper's coverage has, at least, had one good result. Nellie Hunt, who camped in Waltham Park this week because she could not find a rental for herself and three children, is this weekend in a house.

Although the house looks dire, it is tragically the sort of housing many at the bottom spend their lives in.

Goodness knows what Hunt's life has been like and what sort of strife she has got herself into but she seems to have turned a corner.


She holds down a job, looks after her kids on her own and is in touch and co-operative with social agencies. Most importantly, she is attached to an area and a school and a community.

People will say there are thousands more like Nellie Hunt who get themselves in an awful predicament and then expect to be bailed out by the Government.

It's a perfectly understandable reaction but as an argument it goes nowhere in the end. If Nellie Hunt was recently out of jail and a benefit fraudster with a belligerent sense of entitlement then her children would still need to be helped. What we should be celebrating is a good outcome for someone relatively deserving.

It's ironic that Hunt has become a sort of poster girl of the homeless/poverty cause when in fact her issue is pretty simple to fix. Social agencies must deal with far more problematic cases every day. Although by no means well off or comfortable financially, Hunt can get by as long as her rent is reasonable.

Poverty is, of course, far more intractable. We all think poverty is something the Government of a wealthy country like New Zealand should be able to eradicate. Statistics like 265,000 children (defined as people 17 and under) living in poverty make chilling reading.

Are we really that bad? New Zealand has about 1.059 million children so can we really believe as many as 265,000 (25 per cent) are living in income poverty? Of Christchurch's population of 341,469, about 80,000 are children. If we accept the national poverty percentage, about 20,000 children are living in poverty. That equates to about 20 large schools. Just in Christchurch.

If this is true then we are really in the cactus. The trouble with these figures is not that they are inaccurate. It is that people who talk about them use the term poverty (and children/kids) too loosely so that they overstate and confuse the real problem.

The other issue with talk about poverty is we lump all the poor together in one big amorphous group who deserve our sympathy and or our disapproval, depending on your political leanings. This approach invites a silver bullet solution to the poverty problem. The easy solution is usually money but in a country with a limited budget that involves taking resources from some other programme alleviating hardship.

Poverty is not caused simply by a shortage of money.

If it was that easy, it would have been fixed by now. Resourceful people can get by on what we regard as a marginal incomes.

Poverty is the result of myriad reasons ranging from plain bad luck, engrained generational dependency and poor upbringing to addictions, laziness and stupidity. Sometimes it's just lack of support when things go wrong.

If Nellie Hunt's case shows anything it is that targeted support for salvageable families can make a difference. Hunt has showed that with a decent roof over her head she has a good chance of getting her family on a road to independence and a life better than she had.

If the Nellie Hunts are not the problem, what do we for those who are. Well, we keep trying and look for those who have made the changes in their lives that are the essential groundwork for a better life.

But we don't keep talking about poverty and the poor as though all would be well if only the Government could find the right policy mix or extra dollars. Also we shouldn't exaggerate the problem or pretend that there must be nothing worse than being poor.

Most of us are happy for the Government to redistribute income and fund a welfare system and other assistance to help those in need. But don't expect us to be overjoyed about helping people whose predicament or circumstances are partly or largely of their own making.

If children living in hardship are to be helped, the answer often resides in their parent or parents choosing a different life for themselves. No government or agency can do that for them.

The Press