Watered-down milk and toast for tea

Toast for tea. Watering down milk. Treating tomato sauce as a luxury. Giving away the family pet. Bartering for goods and services. This is life for those living below the poverty line in Dunedin.

As part of its annual "Voices of Poverty" report, Presbyterian Support Otago (PSO) interviewed 11 families receiving its help to hear how they were coping with the increasing cost of living.

• Group releases 'Voices of Poverty'

The interviews focused on their experiences before and after last year's income tax and GST changes.

One of those spoken to was Shona (not her real name), who was living with her two daughters, aged 6 and 9, in poor housing. The beneficiary was on home detention for fraud, had done several courses with social service agencies, and was in counselling.

Her weekly income was $498.

With rent and expenses costing $374, she was left with $124 to pay for food, clothing and school and medical expenses.

The tight budget did not respond well to one-off costs, such as the $300 she had to spend on her car, which she needed to take her children to school because her house was isolated from public transport.

Shona admitted her finances were "way out of control" and she relied on regular assistance from Family Works.

PSO chief executive Gillian Bremner said "unprecedented food costs", an increase in unemployment and "the need to juggle what income is available to them" led more families to seek the organisation's assistance.

"Many, especially the unwell or incapacitated, are exceedingly worried as to how the Government's Future Focus policy direction and the Welfare Working Group's report will affect their future.

"The contribution an individual makes to the economy is not the only way of measuring a person's worth," she said.

Some of the key things learned from the families interviewed was that electricity bills were often what pushed them to ask for help; benefits had not kept up with the cost of living; food was a discretionary item; social isolation was a coping mechanism; poverty and mental health issues were often found together; and Work and Income was adversarial rather than helpful.

Constantly cutting down had become a way of life and hard decisions had to be made, such as giving away a family pet because it cost too much to feed.

"Well, it seems that everything's come at once. Petrol has increased and power increases every winter, but even Pam's tomato sauce, which I will buy as a luxury - before the increase it was $1.80 and it's now $2.05 to $2.15. Which makes it now a once-every-six-weeks luxury," one person interviewed said.

Clients had also spoken of watering down milk in an attempt to provide a healthier choice than juice and soft drinks.

A "thriving hidden economy" had arisen, with families bartering, taking in tenants and auctioning goods to make ends meet.

"One friend's a hairdresser, and I bake for her and she cuts the hair for the girls and me. Another friend has a beautiful garden and certainly over the last two or three months I have sewed for her and I get the fresh veges from her garden," one person interviewed said.

Another sold her children's second-hand clothes and toys to friends.

"Slowly, things are being sold off. And it's sort of got to the stage that, um, there's nothing left [to sell]."

The parents did their best to hide their poverty from their children.

"I've got to the last two nights and have had toast for tea because there's just enough food for the kids ... it doesn't affect me in any way. I'd rather my kids got a nice nutritious meal."

Each of them also wanted to improve their situation, but were battling with systems, and their situations, to do so.

Housing, health, and transport were barriers to them leading better lives, while having to pay for child care, and the uncertain labour market, often made it difficult to work.

"Yep I went out and worked, but then I got done secondary tax, which made it even harder ... Some weeks I was working for $7 (laughs); it was ridiculous."




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