21 Dec 2014

Insight for 21 December 2014 - Living Poverty

From Insight, 8:12 am on 21 December 2014

Breaking out of Poverty

Sina Frost says her family is in poverty every second week. Her Auckland family has proper food on the table one week, but not the next.

Insight has been listening to stories from around New Zealand from those who struggle day to day and asking what might make a difference for them.

Insight: Living Poverty

"Sometimes in the second week ... I  just make things with what you've got -  like you got flour, you make pancakes for breakfast. We buy a bag of rice - a 5kg bag - and we just have rice and tea for dinner."

Sina is 45. She has three children, the youngest is 13, and lives in the Rautawhiri state housing area in Helensville northwest of Auckland. Sina has a form of spina bifida and lives with chronic pain and respiratory problems.

Five years ago, Work and Income assessed her as unable to work because of her deteriorating spine. She was put on the invalid's benefit, but taken off it a year later as the extra jobs she tried to do to improve life for her family meant she no longer qualified for invalid support. Sina would like an increase in the benefits she receives - but just as important would be fewer penalties for extra work and a better attitude from Work and Income.

"I try and avoid walking into a WINZ office - even if I know we've got a food advance and we don't have food.  It's the way they talk to you: 'You're young, you should be out working!' They very much talk down (to you ) and they don't tell you what you're entitled to."

Anne, who lives in Whangarei and only wanted to be known by her first name, is another who has found it nigh on impossible to improve her situation.  She was left to raise two daughters on her own, and for many years was on what was called the Domestic Purposes Benefit. Although a trained nurse, over the years she's done cleaning jobs to help make ends meet and to fit around child care.

This year, with the girls getting older, she decided it was time to use her training and get a practising certificate. But to her dismay, she found she had to go into debt to get back into the workforce. The final training needed was going to cost her $1800, but she was unable to get support from WINZ as it was a higher level course and so had to take out a student loan. But that wasn't the end of the expenditure.

"The course was on-line and I didn't have a computer at the time, so I had to borrow money also to be able to get the computer and then to be able to set up internet access at home."

Anne thought all the investment would pay off - but so far it hasn't. She did win a short-term contract for two days a week at the hospital, and has since found part-time hours as a health researcher. At most, she's about $50 a week better off, but because of the new debt, her outgoings have increased.  The state takes back a percentage of her wages for her benefit; Inland Revenue claws back $50 a week for her student loan, and secondary tax takes a whack as well.  

Anne would like the secondary tax changed so individuals can earn more before it kicks in, so that people like her who can't get the one whole job they would like don't suffer financially when they work at  several part-time jobs at once.  

"I've tried really hard to get ahead, but I still feel penalised."  


Even some of those no longer in work would like some focused help.

Inglewood pensioner, Cliff LeBeau, with potted tomatos

Inglewood pensioner, Cliff LeBeau, saves money by growing his own produce Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

 Cliff LeBeau lives in Taranaki and relies on his green thumb and keen eye for a bargain to be able to squirrel away a few dollars at the end of each week. In fact, his skill in the vegetable garden means he can also share his produce with some of his neighbours.

The 83-year-old, who once worked for the Security Intelligence Service and counts among his forbears some of New Zealand's earliest French immigrants, now lives in a one-bedroom unit in Inglewood.

He budgets carefully and is not looking for hand-outs, but believes New Zealanders pay too much for some of life's basics such as power and dairy products such as milk and cheese.

"You could almost buy it in London and post back here and it would still be cheaper."

Pretty near the top of the list for Mr LeBeau would be cheaper regional airfares so that he could afford to see his family more often.

Some of the plans announced before September's general election to help those struggling will be rolled out over the next year, including free visits to the doctor and prescriptions for children under 13.

Follow Insight on Twitter