reader report

We lived in poverty, getting by on food parcels and the generosity of others

"I remember telling Mum I was hungry and Mum saying that dinner was coming - even though she knew it wasn't. " (FILE PHOTO)
Charlotte Curd/Fairfax NZ
"I remember telling Mum I was hungry and Mum saying that dinner was coming - even though she knew it wasn't. " (FILE PHOTO)

OPINION: Not one red cent.

It was Dad's favourite saying when I was a child. 

It means not even a tiny or the smallest amount of money.

Growing up, we lived in Devonport. Not the Devonport of now with $25 breakfasts, boutique shops and overpriced priced fish and chips, but Devonport in the 80s - with Navy houses, The Esplanade Pub and the "Bag Lady", who was homeless and unwashed but was the most well spoken, educated wealth of wisdom.

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While it was still a reasonably OK suburb of Auckland, there were many people who lived pay cheque to pay cheque, watching every penny and going without so their kids could eat.

My dad had a decent job at the flour mill and Mum worked as a machinist at Moray's Wetsuits. We had enough but nothing special. We rented an old but decent house on the hill, with an amazing view to the city.

That was, until Mum started getting pain and had to stop work. That's when things got harder.

As a child you don't think about being poor. That's until you start going to school. You start to ask questions, like why do the other kids have ham in their sandwiches and yoghurt and fruit in their lunchboxes? Or why don't I have a real lunchbox instead of glad-wrapped luncheon and sandwiches?

Luncheon was the norm except when we had an occasional Sunday roast,  which meant leftover sandwiches for a day or two. We didn't have fruit, no roll-ups, no yoghurt, or lunchboxes.

We would get in trouble from our teachers for not covering our books in Duraseal and ask Mum and Dad why our books were wrapped in newspaper or magazine paper and covered in sellotape?

During summer, we would ask why Mum didn't have pool key; "It's only $20 a year?".

You don't understand so well as a child. Not until you get a bit older, a bit wiser.

Dad was made redundant from the flour mill and getting another job was tough. There was the standard six week stand down period for the unemployment benefit ("the dole"). That's when things became really tough and rent was behind. A food parcel came from the Salvation Army and the old TV went on the blink so we huddled around a portable 6-inch, black and white TV that a friend had lent us.

Insight on RNZ National
Solo mums on the benefit are still struggling to make ends meet, with some going hungry to feed their kids. RNZ's Insight investigates what happened to the government's promise to overhaul the welfare system and lift families out of poverty.

My clearest memory from that time was two days before "dole day" and the only thing in the cupboard from the food parcel was one bag of tri-coloured pasta. That was it. Mum had become an expert at stretching out meals, but even that was too little for her to work with.

My parents hadn't eaten in nearly three days so my sister and I could. That was their reality. I remember telling Mum I was hungry and Mum saying that dinner was coming - even though she knew it wasn't. Then came a knock on the door and there was my much older half-brother, who had borrowed money from his father to buy us some Chinese takeaways. I remember my Mum's face; relief, joy, shame.

That's when I realised we were poor.

We had to move out of our rental. Mum, Dad and my sister lived with a family friend and I stayed with my best mate cause it was closer to Intermediate School. For nine months we lived like this. Separated, the dole as the only income and relying on the generosity of others.

Dad managed to get a job as a storeman in a warehouse and we got a flat, a tiny two bedroom. We were back together, but still not a red cent to be found. After a year, we got a state house and moved to Glenfield. That's when things started to get better.

Dad got a second job, rent was cheaper and I was 14 and old enough to get a part time after school job. I paid the phone bill, that was my contribution. I left school at 16 to work fulltime and help the family.

It's been a very long road. Now my parents are older, my sister has her own family and through luck and meeting people along the way, I have a very good job. We are in a better position than ever before, but it's still tough sometimes. You are shaped by your childhood and poverty never really leaves you.

I worked two jobs for many years because that's was what you did if you wanted to earn enough to have better things.

The idea of owning a home is not a consideration. Holidays were spent at home. Then you get caught in a debt cycle. The mentality of being poor sticks to you.

Some break out of the cycle, most don't. Until we can work with those to break the mindset, the cycle will continue.


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