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Poverty and debt: a family in crisis

In a small office next to the local library, a woman sits hunched over, crying, clutching a debt collection notice. She does not make eye contact with the financial mentor who gets up from her chair and puts a reassuring hand on the woman’s shoulder.

“I’m so embarrassed, and I’m a failure as a parent,” the woman sobs. “I can’t afford to feed my babies.”

“No you’re not a failure,” the mentor says. “You fell on hard times, it could happen to anyone.”

This was not the life that Joanna M had expected for herself and her three children, aged five and a half, three, and the baby just eleven months, she explained to the financial mentor.

Only six months ago she had been married, managing financially. Carl, her ex, had been a good provider after all. They rented a fairly decent home and paid all the bills on time.

After the couple had found out Joanna was pregnant with their third child, Carl seemed to lose his ability to cope with family needs and a stressful job. He distanced himself from the family, often coming home late, and drunk.

There was no close family around for support and Joanna felt alone with the responsibility of parenting three children. She’d tried not to put pressure on him to help around the house and with the kids, but it began to wear her down, and the breakdown in their relationship contributed to her own depression.

The first time Carl had struck her was late one night when he arrived home drunk. Joanna confronted him for not calling, leaving her once again to hold the fort. Things seemed to settle down a bit after that, but soon the outbursts and violence came more frequently. While he never deliberately hurt the children, Joanna became increasingly anxious for their safety.

One night, Carl threw a lamp across the living room, striking their eldest child as she came in the door. She had woken again to the commotion of her parents’ arguments, and come to check her mother was okay. Though she was not badly harmed, for Joanna it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She knew that while she stayed, she was putting herself and her children at risk.

In the process of moving out and getting on the Sole Parent Support benefit, Joanna was suddenly hit with a poverty she’d never known. She and Carl always just had the basics, and she’d prided herself on her thrifty management, but this life was a new, desperate kind of struggle. The only rental she’d found near school was cold and damp and without an efficient source of heating. Her last power bill had reached over $400, and she couldn’t pay it.

Joanna received no financial support from her own family and she’d taken out an emergency loan, then in a short space of time had to borrow more.

Carl’s reason for not contributing any extra for his children’s needs was that he was already paying child support directly from his wages to the IRD. But besides her benefit, Joanna received nothing additional. She had lost her $72.50 a week from Working for Families, money her family had relied on even with Carl working full-time. The In-Work Tax Credit money had been paid directly to her as the caregiver, even though the eligibility criteria was met through Carl’s hours of work. To Joanna, it made no sense that she would lose money from Working for Families by saving her family from harm.

 The baby had been sick recurrently, the three-year-old had suffered a bout of pneumonia, despite Joanna’s efforts to keep them warm. The eldest had been experiencing behavioural issues since the split and referred to counselling appointments that Joanna found difficult to get to. Joanna’s own health had suffered. Most days, she explained to the financial mentor, it took all her energy to keep it together and be the mother her children needed.

Joanna relayed a conversation she’d had with another a mum at school, who had informed her said she and her husband were re-mortgaging to buy new cars.

She’d replied to the mum, “You’re lucky you can do that.”

“Well it’s not like we have ten grand in our back pockets,” replied the mother.

It seemed to Joanna that people with mortgages were rewarded, while others like herself were systematically dragged down, into debt and poverty.

Joanna M and her family are fictional characters. However this type of scenario is not uncommon. Sole parents are a stigmatised ‘other’, and commentators speak of ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘a drain on our society’. But the welfare system is not a luxury - it is a safety net that has been cut to pieces over the years leading to the cruel and inhumane treatment of beneficiaries and their children. Other pressures, such as the high-priced rental market, make it nearly impossible for a sole-parent family to survive on the benefit. Parents such as Joanna are prime business for fringe lenders, who capitalise on their desperation.

But just imagine how much difference an extra $72.50 a week from Working for Families could make to Joanna’s children, if her role as a parent was recognised as “work”?

If you or anyone you know is in a situation where there is violence and abuse, there are places who will provide support and safety for you and your children.

  • Women's Refuge Crisis line 0800 733 843 (24hr) or free call from a mobile 0800 211 211 (9am-6pm) for transfer through to Women's Refuge
  • Auckland Refuges' Crisis Line 09 378 1893
  • Family Violence Info-line  0800 456 450 (9am-11pm)

  • If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111