Monday, February 2, 2015

Verity Johnson: Bad parents? These people are heroes

This is an opinion piece that was in the NZ Herald just before Christmas. I think it deserves to be read by a wider audience.  Verity Johnson says we need to rethink the way we talk about poverty, forget the prejudice and deal with some of the uncomfortable facts about what is happening in the homes of the 'underclass'. 

Here is the link to the story

I will also publish it below...

I was running, Hop card in my teeth, clutching my bag, pulling down my skirt and blinking away sweat. I was late. I was lost. And I'd forgotten to Google where Auckland City Mission actually was. But I needn't have worried. As I turned on to the corner of Hobson St, I froze. About 200 people were standing on the pavement.

It was the queue to get into the City Mission.

There was a TV3 guy in a sharp suit at the end of the line. He was trying to talk to people and was getting laughed at. I had to walk past him, and through the queue, to get to the door.

I've never felt younger, greener ... no, whiter, and more middle class than I did at that moment.

Inside, people were squashed into every corner. People sat hunched, elbows on knees, staring at me, or at the wall, or at the clock.

At my feet, a baby girl with dark curls wriggled around like a caterpillar.

I looked at her. Then I looked at my feet. I was wearing new trainers. I'd bought them yesterday. $180. A Christmas present to myself. White, high-heeled Nikes. They glistened like pig fat under the neon lights.

Eventually, when a bead of sweat had dribbled the full length of my spine, I got shown into Diane's office.

Diane Robertson, CEO of the Auckland City Mission, looked busy. She had one food parcel to distribute every eight minutes. She waved away my feeble small talk about the heat, pulled out the Family 100 Report on poverty in New Zealand, and talked for the next hour about the hideously intricate web of poverty.

I left. My stomach was tied in fierce knots at my own privilege, the injustice of the situation and the fact that some people had queued since 3am. There was still a queue at midday. They were waiting for a box of Weetbix, sausages and toilet paper.

Later that evening, I was in a funky Takapuna bistro for my girlfriend's birthday. It was one of those places where everything comes with an artistic olive. It was one of those places I felt comfortable walking into. One of those places I could wear the white trainers in.

It was also the place where I'd had one of my most heated dinner conversations ever. A guy had been telling me that we shouldn't have free breakfast in schools. Apparently parents who sent their kids to school without breakfast were irresponsible. If we gave them Weetbix, it'd only encourage this bad parenting.

The idea that poor people are bad parents is one of the ideas I heard a lot at school. It normally came alongside something like, "God, they just laze around, sponging off the government, living off benefits ... they don't even want a job."

There is prejudice and loathing, and then there are facts. The Family 100 Project, an online report compiled by Auckland Council, Auckland City Mission and Think Place, brings the truth of what's actually happening in the homes of the underclass.
You'll read, in story after story, about parents who don't eat so that their kids can. Parents who don't sleep in a bed so their kids can. Parents who will get up at 3am to queue, go through a five-hour ordeal of form filling, waiting, explaining, waiting, explaining again and waiting again ... just to get a box of Weetbix and sausages so their kids can eat at Christmas.

They don't sound like bad parents. They sound like heroes.

And when you read The Family 100 Project, you'll see there is a section on employment. You can read the interviews where people rhapsodise about working.

They want to work; it's a ticket out of poverty. It's a way to meet new people. It's a way to buy dinner every night of the week. And it's a self- confidence boost.

They don't sound like spongers. They sound willing, no, desperate to work.

And you can see the web of agencies that people living with poverty deal with in a fortnight. It's well over 20. Families must traipse from agency to agency, continually proving how they're 'legitimately poor'. I can't imagine what that's like. But it sounds like they work flat out to live.

We can do something about it. We can change the way we talk about poverty. We can donate to Auckland City Mission's 'Be Someone's Angel' campaign. Or we can think better of buying $180 trainers and buy two food boxes for a family instead.

I'm not sure I want these shoes now anyway. I thought they were a sparkly white. On closer inspection, I think they're a foul yellow.


Lynn Rupe said...

Thanks for posting that Wendy. Verity spoke very powerful about poverty and the single story that we might associate with those in poverty. The single stories are the stories that we have been feed over time - assumptions about people or groups of people that are not necessarily based on truth.

Nick Finestone said...

Quite a view Verity, as always your views are very compelling. You write very well. Awesome!