The undeserving poor
The first thing that’s relevant for you to know about me is that I’m a beneficiary. It’s such a dirty word, isn’t it? Beneficiary. Conjures up images of the great unwashed, the worn-out mothers with babies in dirty nappies, the families sat on broken chairs on the porch of their state house, smoking cigarettes while ignoring their foul-mouthed children who run wild in the streets and grow up to be criminals. The undeserving poor; they brought it all on themselves; they should just work harder and make smarter choices, like you did.
It’s not fair to expect you to prop them up. You’ve worked hard to be comfortable. Your superannuation shouldn’t be means tested because you’ve always been told you’ll receive it. You were also told your second or third house would be an investment for your children and you shouldn’t be taxed on that because you’re just looking out for your kids too and why should anything be taken from you when you earned it. You might not realise the government is actually subsidising your lifestyle instead of helping those who live in hell every day just trying to survive. Hey, you had rocky patches in your marriage too, but you worked it out, you didn’t just quit and then expect the government to support you. See, I’ve been listening to you.
I’d like to publicly declare that I’m a beneficiary because I am sick of hearing the tired, uninformed, and heartless narrative that we shouldn’t have had kids if we can’t afford them, that we are stupid, that we should be forced to work harder, that our incomes should be restricted and heavily scrutinised to make sure we don’t feed our children junk food or that we don’t spend money intended for our poor neglected children on cigarettes and alcohol or you know, maybe on a coffee or a movie because god forbid anyone remembers that parents are humans with needs too.
Our welfare system is designed to expect the worst from those who need assistance. Even though broader political policies are often what create that need in the first place. You want to talk about working harder? Let’s talk about the lack of jobs. You want to talk about poor people feeding their children unhealthy food, or purchasing alcohol? Let’s talk about the high ratio of fast food outlets and liquor stores in the poorest parts of the country. How about stupidity? Let’s discuss decades of oppression that literally shrinks cognitive ability due to chronic stress, and the lack of opportunity for decent education for so many New Zealanders. You want to talk about beneficiaries being terrible parents? Let’s discuss how severely underfunded mental health and support services are.
Then after we’ve discussed these factors, let’s move on to how those allegations simply aren’t the truth. Because the majority of us do work hard and prioritise our children’s needs and the few who don’t have been victims of structural oppression since they were children themselves and they were hurt by policies and moralising attitudes and they would do better if they knew better and had better support. But somehow those who degrade the humanity of beneficiaries based on outdated myths and incorrect information are able to ignore the part they have to play in children’s poverty and motherhood shaming and the ongoing damage that does to our entire society. Inequality restricts economic growth as well as being unethical and inhumane. New Zealand, we are not doing well.
We are stigmatising the recipients of social assistance instead of strengthening our ability to respond to critical needs. We are spitting in the faces of the children who reach out for food. We are making mothers outcasts for participating in their children’s lives. We are electing politicians with deeply flawed and short sighted policies that further disadvantage the needy while lining the pockets of the rich. Those who are wealthy enough to not need any help continue to believe it is by personal virtue and luck and opportunity has nothing to do with it.
Listen, the poor are not poor because they are bad people. The presumed link between poverty and poor character is false. They are poor because they do not have enough money.
A friend said to me “but you’re on a student allowance, that’s different.” No, it’s not. My student allowance is exactly the same amount of money and comes from exactly the same place as a sole parent benefit. The idea that a student allowance is more acceptable than a benefit comes from a place of moralising, where parenting and community service is not valued by our society but studying is. As if the mothers who care for their children in their formative years, or for their aged parents in their declining ones, or the volunteers at the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter or the crisis line, who help the most vulnerable members of our society at their lowest point, are not contributing something worthy.
My son and I are lucky to have a livable house, enough food to eat, and a bit leftover for fun if I’m careful with budgeting. Let’s not forget that this is because I am educated, I am white, I am healthy, and I have enough social skills to build a support network around us. Any of the mistakes I have made could have left us far worse off were those things not the case. If I were mentally or physically ill, for example. Or if I didn’t have a friend to lend me money for car tyres so I could still get my child to school that time mine wore down to dangerous levels before a kindly parking warden pointed them out.
Sometimes small mistakes or events mean disaster for the vulnerable, where the same situation is merely an inconvenience for the privileged.
When I first started writing this, I listed all the reasons why I don’t fit the stereotype. I don’t think these things are as relevant as my first sentence though. They don’t make me any more deserving. We all deserve to live and be supported if for whatever reason, short- or long-term, we are unable to fully support ourselves.
I would present myself as an example of why the welfare queen myth is nonsense and maybe change someone’s mind about the negative ideas. So that perhaps women like me will stop being criticised in every public discourse where people who don’t want to understand our lives focus on mythical abstractions instead of real experiences. Maybe then there will be a few less people fighting progressive ideas for greater social equality and a few more supporting them.
But I fear that using myself as an example – or my friends as examples, or even your friends or family, because I’m sure you know someone who is on a benefit but who “isn’t like the rest of them” – won’t make any difference. I’ll just be filed under “an exception” and the “dole bludger” will continue to be the common view. The vile rhetoric I see in popular media attacks my friends and I and many others on a deeply personal level as well as holding back potential change that could revolutionise our entire society for good. The solutions are out there, we just need to stop blaming poor people for being poor and instead take action to resolve the structural issues that create this inequality.
We can do better, New Zealand. When we hold each other up, when we look after the vulnerable in their times of need, when we work together instead of shouting at each other across the divide money creates, everyone is better off.
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