A Poor Choice

Some of you may already be aware that occasionally I write an opinion piece under the category Belllettres Bulletin. I write about topics, trends and current events that catch my attention, or about which I feel so strongly that I simply have to say something. Outspoken? Opinionated? Me?

Let’s start today’s Bulletin with a question.

It’s winter and bitterly cold. You only have enough money to:

A. Keep the heating on

B. Take your son to the doctor for a painful ear infection

C. Buy food for your family.

Which do you choose?

Hold this question in your mind as you read on.

Today I thought I would share with you some thoughts about my “real” writing job – the one that actually brings in a regular income.

I work part-time in the fundraising department at the Auckland City Mission (www.aucklandcitymission.org.nz). It’s an organisation that works with the most desperate and marginalised people in Auckland – families living in poverty, homeless men and women, people addicted to drugs and alcohol, people with mental health issues: put simply, people at the bottom of the pile.

I write all the funding applications to charitable trusts and grant-making bodies that distribute much-needed funds to community organisations.

It costs the Mission over $4.5 million to provide its services, and only eight per cent of this is government-funded. The organisation simply wouldn’t exist without the generosity of trusts and grant making bodies. This year I single-handedly have to raise over a million dollars. No pressure.

I have to approach each funding application as if I were appearing before an examination board, trying to prove why we desperately need money. Each one is an exercise in writing persuasive, emotive copy that uses hard facts and figures to back it up.

As I complete each application – and let’s be honest, the job can be extremely boring and repetitive at times – I remind myself who I am actually working for.

In the lead-up to Christmas, that’s easy. I only have to stick my head out a window of the Mission’s inner-city building to see the queues of people lining up for food parcels and Christmas presents for their children that they can’t afford to buy themselves. For most of us, December is a time of excitement and anticipation. For them, it is a time of added stress, extra difficulty and huge financial pressure.

During the rest of the year, I talk to staff and hear many stories about the people who come to us for help.

Many parents who, through no fault of their own are unable to put food on the table, come to the Mission’s doors as a last resort. They come because they have nowhere else to turn. They are ashamed and scared. They are weary of constantly asking for help. They are trapped in the cycle of poverty, and are trying to navigate the complex obstacle course of our health and social service sector on a daily basis.

You may be surprised to learn that many of the people we see are not stereotypical “poor” people. The student in the flat across the road who is struggling to pay his bills. The young woman whose partner has had his work hours reduced. The family suddenly trying to exist on one income after years of being relatively comfortable. The old person ripped off by a finance company who cannot afford to eat or pay the bills. Our next client could be your work colleague, the Mum at your local play group, the couple next door, the local dairy owner.

poverty

It’s so easy to become immune to TV ads asking for help and charities shaking buckets on street corners. It’s even easier to see people living in poverty as being the authors of their own suffering.

A while ago there was an ongoing debate in the media about whether the government should pay for a “Breakfast in Schools” programme for children who arrive at school hungry.

Oh, what an opportunity for the haters and judgers and holier-than-thou-ers to rub their hands together in glee and start wagging stern fingers at the naughty poor people. Talkback radio almost exploded with savage excitement.

“Anyone can find two bits of toast to feed their children!” “They spend too much on booze and cigarettes!” “It’s not the government’s / the community’s / my responsibility to feed starving children – the parents should get off their asses and get a job.” “They could choose to help themselves if they really tried!”

The debate raged and meanwhile children continued to go to school with no food in their stomachs. It made me feel sick, and ashamed. Mostly, it made me want to invite every one of the armchair critics to sit in the Mission just for one day to observe the reality of poverty.

They would see that the majority of people who come to us are desperate to work, do everything they can to feed their children, are good parents and want their lives to change for the better. They simply do not have the resources or support to do so.

Of course there will always be the few who rip off the system or make poor choices, but why are we so swift to condemn? Beats me. Are we so desperate to deny the reality that poverty exists in New Zealand, and that we need to take collective responsibility for trying to do something about it?

Back to the question at the start of the post. Couldn’t choose? That’s because it isn’t a fair choice – in fact, it’s no choice at all. But for many Aucklanders it’s the only one they’ve got.

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