I worked my way out of poverty - but I'm the exception, not the rule

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

I was one of the poor kids. I grew up in the era of Live Aid, so we never really thought of ourselves in that way - poverty happened in other countries.

But often I was really hungry. Sometimes we had no dinner. I remember aching with cold and longing for gloves and a hat. I remember my feet hurting in my shoes, knowing we couldn’t afford new ones.

Today, I think New Zealanders have finally acknowledged that child poverty is a problem. Before charities like KidsCan started it was easy to say, “It’s not happening in our backyard.”

Those charities have raised the consciousness of Kiwis to do something about it - but as a country we’re not doing enough. Surely, we can at least make our home good enough that everyone can afford to buy enough food for their kids.

It’s easy to blame those who are struggling. For some people it feels better to think, "oh, those parents are just down at the pokies, it’s their fault their kids are hungry". It’s easier to think about that than imagine parents working two jobs but spending so much on rent that milk is unaffordable - and they don’t turn on the heater when it’s cold.

We need to make sure that somebody who's working a minimum wage can afford to live and feed their children. There’s something very wrong that that’s no longer the case.

I remember one kid at school had the most lovingly made sandwiches, his mum used to cut the crusts off. I would imagine this kid’s life; what must it be like when he gets home? He probably has biscuits. And then his mum died and suddenly he became like me, because his dad wasn’t coping. I realised life can turn very quickly.

We must stop judging.

It’s not easy to get out of poverty. There’s this myth that anybody can do anything if you just work hard enough. But if you can’t afford decent clothes for a job interview, or petrol to get there, or money for your phone to call about a job, then it gets tough.

Poverty means things start slowly and quietly counting against you. The playing field is not level.

So why aren’t we giving more people a hand up? Humans are communal creatures. We’re designed to help one another. It actually makes you feel better, and it makes for a much better society. If we don’t tackle poverty, we just pay for it in other ways. We pay for it in our hospitals, because people are getting bronchitis or heart problems from strep throat. We pay for it in the amount of people that are on social services. We pay for it in our prisons.

For me, I can’t pretend that poverty doesn’t exist, so I don’t have to do anything about it. I can’t unsee kids not having enough food. I can’t unsee kids going to school without shoes in the rain. I’m not running around saving the world, but I can do a little bit, by giving $30 a month to KidsCan.

I’m lucky to be able to help. I managed to work my way out of poverty and now, comparatively, I lead a life of great privilege. I have a great job. My cupboards are full. I feel enormous gratitude.

But I won’t forget where I’ve come from. As that amazing saying goes: "If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a longer table than a taller fence".

If you are able to help, you can do your bit by giving $30 a month to KidsCan to help Kiwi kids break the cycle of poverty.