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People Making Changes Issue 26 -
The Real Face of Poverty in
New Zealand - Part I

Dorothy - 25/9/97

An interview with Brenda Lowe, manager of Emergency Relief at the Christchurch Methodist Mission and advocate for beneficiaries.

Loaves and Fishes

"I'm not talking about poverty and hardship as someone who has never experienced them", said Brenda as we began to talk.

Brenda's life story
She was the older of two girls in a family of twenty two, and had to carry a lot of responsibility for childcare. Her father worked in sawmills but kept moving for better pay. She knew poverty, but not the type of poverty that is experienced by some families today. They did not go hungry. Her father kept a great garden and her mother used to bake, so there was food, but there were no shoes and all clothing was secondhand. She knew what it was to live with a father who was an alcoholic and physical abuse was frequent. Such frequent childbirth and the problems of mixed race led to many tensions in the home. Her father was Maori and her mother was Scottish. Brenda said that as a child she experienced racism in the home and outside it.

When she was thirteen she decided that it was not the kind of life she wanted and she turned to the Bible, reading it three times. For her it was a comfort zone. The story that stayed in her mind all the time was the story of the loaves and the fishes. She realised its full significance in depicting the sharing of resources only when she came to work in the Mission.

She would not then have said that she was in the poverty trap, but that was where she was, and that is why she understands the feelings and needs of others in the trap now.

When she was thirteen the family broke up and after serious threats of violence to her she was taken to an aunt, but left school and then ran away. She married young and had four children and worked to ensure that they had the education she had missed out on. Then her marriage broke up and she had to support herself. She took work in a laundry and then in a hotel and ended up managing hotels for fifteen years. From there in 1990 she went as administration manager for a Maori organisation for people with alcohol and drug problems. There she was forced to confront her issues and her identity and found the experience very valuable and healing. It was necessary for her to be healed of her pain before she became a healer in her present role.

The events in her life to that point gave Brenda the experience and the skills she needed for working with those in the poverty trap.

Work in the Methodist Mission
When Brenda started work at the Mission she was appalled at the poverty she saw - a level of poverty that she had never known. These people were living below the breadline and did not have the basic income for the basic necessities. She realised that giving them a food parcel was only a temporary form of help and advocacy was the key dynamic in terms of alleviating poverty. She at first hoped that in doing this she might work herself out of a job!

Brenda defines advocacy as all-round support - taking off the shoulders of the clients the weight of a great variety problems and finding appropriate solutions to them. This may be done by support or referrals to those most skilled in the areas causing the distress.

Increase in the numbers of people needing help
However, with the economic policies that have been put in place the situation with poverty has deteriorated and the number of clients has increased. At present the Mission has over 7,000 families on the books. Brenda is hoping that with advocacy that number can be cut down by fifty per cent in the next three years.

Sudden changes in financial situations
The gap between rich and poor has widened and Brenda has seen people suddenly move from comfortable middle class lives to the poverty trap through redundancy or illness. This has happened to employees in government departments. Some who have been dealing with beneficiaries have suddenly found themselves in that position and needing a food parcel.

Failure to acknowledge the existence of poverty
In her experience nobody in authority really wants to admit that there is poverty, and few people want to know those at the bottom of the poverty scale. To those who challenge the existence of poverty and condemn the poor as having caused their own problems, she has suggested that they spend a week listening to what those in the trap have to say. They do not accept her invitation.

Care for families
The Mission cares especially for families. For Brenda there is a special focus on children who are the casualties in the poverty trap - children with whom she is well able to identify.

Causes of hardship
The increased cost of housing, the Employment Contracts Act, the changes in ACC, the level of the basic income through Income Support, and the unemployment issue - these are key factors in the situation.

Feeding by faith
The symbol of the Mission is the five loaves and the two fish. This represents the belief of the Mission that there are people who are willing to share and will help others. Brenda recalls the day when the last tin of baby food was on the shelf and as though by a miracle another gift of baby food arrived. No longer does she let the supply of food worry her. She believes that God moves in mysterious ways and help comes through prayer. As a result in a year the Mission is able to feed about 7,500 people. To pay the wages for Brenda and Emma, her secretary, and to supplement donations of food and clothing and furniture for people in need the Emergency Relief unit has a budget of $122.000. Brenda believes that it is faith that allows them to do so much on so little.

If you have food, clothing or furniture to donate please ring the Mission.

A bicultural approach towards healing
Brenda believes that her journey has not been random and that she has found her niche. She understands both Maori and Pakeha ways of relating to each other and of doing business. In the hotel industry she learnt to withstand aggression and take no nonsense. She will not accept abuse, verbal, emotional or physical.

With advocacy she finds that people often have a multitude of problems. The core of spiritual wellbeing is what the Maori term the rito. The rito must be totally cleansed if healing is to take place and the problems are not to recur. If the staff at the Mission do not have the expertise to give people the type of help they need they refer them on.

Teaching money management
Some clients need to be shown how to budget and avoid the temptation of purchases on time payment which they cannot afford. Careful checks are made on how people fare after the help and very few relapse into this type of problem.

The results of the standdown process
Fear of the six month standdown makes many people afraid to give up the benefit and take a job in case they cannot cope with it. This is a very real fear for them, as unemployment has a drastic impact on people's self esteem.

How the standdown can impact on people?
From Brenda's case notes:
- a twenty four year old pregnant woman with two children has had to move into a bedsit due to being on a two week standdown.
- a client was placed on a twenty six week standdown for failing a work test, but he was partially deaf and nobody had checked to see if he had any disabilities.
- a woman with four children who had to flee a violent relationship with no money was placed on a two week standdown.

Last year the Mission helped eight long-term unemployed into permanent work - one who had been unemployed for fourteen years. A career development plan assists them to become motivated and to accept training.

Children at risk
Often Brenda visits families who are living below the breadline and have no food. Their basic living costs - rent and electricity - can take up to 75% of their less-than-basic income. Many have power managers installed to be sure that they do not run up a huge power bill and have their power cut off, but the use of a power manager means that these people pay considerably more for their power than people who have the money to pay their bills without one.

Children are sometimes not fed for up to three days and do not go to school because they are too weak with hunger. Some are not going to school because they have nits and the ointment is too expensive. This sent Brenda to negotiate with the health authorities for a supply of the medication for nits and scabies so that she can supply it . The children who are most at risk of these health problems are the hungry children. What shall the parents pay for? -- food or ointment?

The defenceless young
Police, calling at a house to trace a former occupant, by chance came upon a case of extreme hardship. A young woman of seventeen was living with her partner and was six and a half months pregnant. Her partner took off taking everything but a single bed and one sheet. In five days all that young woman had to eat was a part packet of Coco Pops, two oranges, and the ice she could scrape off the freezer. She had no way of heating the room. She was weak with hunger, cold and frightened, but did not want to ask for help.

The problem of redundancy
Sudden news of redundancy can catch people with debts, and in most contracts there is now no redundancy payment. One client in his fifties cannot get other work since suddenly being made redundant from a firm where he had worked for twenty years. He has considerable time payments to meet and is really struggling on the benefit.

Education levels
Some clients have had a good education, but it is no longer a protection against unemployment. Those who are unable to read are referred to the W.E.A. for help.

Nature of the client group
Three years ago the client group consisted almost entirely of beneficiaries. 8% last year were employed but on a very low income. Many people accept very poorly paid jobs because they wish to be independent and they see it as a start in the workforce.

Immigrants and refugees as clients
The proportion of refugees and immigrants has increased by 1% in the last year. Some of the immigrants have paid brokers thousands of dollars for housing and a job on arrival. One client had been a nuclear scientist but has found no job. The family had come to avoid suffering in their own country but now feel that it is preferable to return to that painful situation rather than stay here in despair.

Analysis of the client group ages
Analysing the client group by age shows that the largest group is in the 26 to 35 bracket. As these grow older their children are likely to be the next large group of beneficiaries, following their parents into the poverty trap.

Some elderly people are now clients, often because they have used part of their benefit to help their grandchildren, and then find that they have no money for food.

33% of the group were Maori, 6% Pacific Islanders, 60% European and 1% of other races. This means that predominantly the clients of the foodbank are European. This proportion increased by 7% in the last year. The Maori proportion has decreased by 8%.

Some Pacific Islanders are bonded to generous giving to their churches - giving which is often announced to the congregation. This can make their financial situation more difficult.

Number of visits
55% of visits to the foodbank in 1995-6 were first visits. Since then there has been an increase in the number of return visits.

Christmas celebrations
There is a special food parcel given out at Christmas and a present for each child - often the only present the child will get. Christmas dinner is also served to nearly two hundred people.

Christmas Dinner

Help in a time of crisis
Some families need help in a time of crisis, but are able to cope once it has passed. One young boy contracted Aids through a blood transfusion. The family received regular support from the Mission during his illness, and he was given a huge toy seal to cling to in the pain of his last days. Once the boy had died the family were able to cope financially with budget advice from the Salvation Army.

Ex-psychiatric patients
A number of these people come to the Mission in need. One young man has been intimidated and forced to hand over his benefit money to bullies on the street. Others have difficulties because they do not know how to prioritise their spending.

1994 - Year of the Family
For families in the poverty trap this was a year of suffering with increased rentals driving families to share houses in overcrowded conditions and stress making more families dysfunctional. Nothing was addressed in that year.

1996 - International Year for the Eradication of Poverty
This was initiated back in 1992 by fifty world leaders (including New Zealand) who committed themselves to eradicating poverty. Against the resolution was the United States. Poverty was recognised as a complex and multidimensional problem. Its eradication in all countries, particularly developing countries has become one of the priority development objectives for the 1990's. Sadly at the end of the year few issues pertaining to poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand had been addressed.

1997 - Deterioration in the accommodation situation
The accommodation supplement was increased by five dollars a week when some rentals increased by up to $43 a week because the State houses were charging market rentals - a subtle cut in the spending power of beneficiaries and low income earners.

What is the outlook for those in the poverty trap?
In Christchurch alone many families are experiencing great hardship and the agencies of the Christian churches are networking to bring them relief. The Government is concerned at the rises in the welfare expenditure. Changes are mooted. What will they mean for those living below the breadline?

Read Part 2 for further information about poverty in New Zealand.

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