Every time I hear someone talk about choice and poverty/benefits in the same breath,  my heart stops. Because it means yet another person is light years removed from what’s happening in their own country right now.

I hear that word all the time – choice – and I don’t know that people who live in some privilege have really any understanding about how complex nor how inculcated in privilege that concept of choice is.

Today has really been, for me, all about this word. First, a conversation with someone in the morning, then several hours spent in the company of someone living in poverty, and then this most excellent interactive “game”  devised by Jess Berentson Shaw and illustrated by Joshua Drummond, around choices, or the lack of them.

I spend a lot of time with women who are living in poverty. Most of them are on the DPB, some are working. But they all struggle to thrive. They have all left intimate partner or family violence, and the only choice they have at that stage is whether to stay gone or to return to their homes, their partners, and the violence. Many of them choose to return. Because the thing about choice when you’re living in poverty, and you’re under resourced, is that it’s a bit shit. Do I return to a person who treats me like crap? Or do I stay away, get some peace and the kids and I live on the bones of our arses?  Shit choice.

Say you decide to stay gone. You’re the sole income earner now. You have a choice. Do you live alone, with the kids, and try to survive? Or do you live with family?  Overcrowded house or loneliness? Help to pay bills or struggling to eat? Shit choice.

So I’m going to tell you about my friend P.

Because some people believe that living on a benefit is a choice that people make. Except it’s not a choice that the people judging it have ever had to make, so they don’t know it’s a really shit one. They don’t know that nobody wants to live on a benefit, because it’s humiliating, the state is all up in your business and you constantly feel like a failure. You feel like a failure for so long, that you think you really are one, and then what’s the point of trying, and they just keep offering you jobs that are minimum wage and wouldn’t change your situation. Shit choice.

So P and I spent the morning together. She’s a delightful and extraordinary human being. And she’s given me permission to tell you about her. TELL THEM she said. So I am.

P is about my age. She’s worked for years in the drug/alcohol rehab field, she’s doing a doctorate, she’s helping her friends set up a drug rehab facility for Māori women…and she’s on the DPB. Four years ago she left a very violent relationship, with her 6 children, and they moved constantly to keep three steps ahead of him. She had been working, but moving around meant she couldn’t do that, and she wanted to be there for her kids anyway.  And then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s just finished treatment recently. But her ill health meant she couldn’t work, and she had to stay on that benefit. All the while she was studying, and working voluntarily, keeping busy, trying to do the best she could do. As she said to me today: “being a half decent parent requires energy and resources”. A bit like making “good choices”. You need to be on it, or, you know, shit happens.

So she’s on the benefit. She’s been trying so hard to get off it, because it isn’t enough to live on. It isn’t. Hasn’t been for a while. Which is another reason I wonder if people who says “it’s a choice” have any idea, and I know they don’t. Some days, she doesn’t eat. Some days, neither her nor the older kids eat. Because there just isn’t enough. So she made the choice to carry on with her education, and to get this rehab up and running, have all the meetings, do all the running around, all unpaid, so that she and her kids have a better future. She’s making enormous sacrifices.

But. WINZ don’t like it. She was being investigated for fraud, she told me. “In the interests of full disclosure” she said. You know what someone did? Saw her running around, looking all smart, and made a choice. A shit choice. To tell WINZ  – THAT WOMAN IS WORKING. So they haul her in, and she’s honest with them. I defrauded you, she said, because I used the money to print business cards for our new venture. And she had to undergo an interrogation and prove to them that she wasn’t working for money. And here’s what they knew about her, so they should have known she wasn’t working for money.

Her car has been impounded because her daughter was a silly bugger, and she’s made the choice to teach her daughter about consequence. And she doesn’t have the money to get it out of the pound anyway. So when she has a WINZ appointment, she walks. And because she’s just had breast reconstruction surgery, she took 1 hour and 15 minutes to walk there.

She normally has a case worker who understands that she’s doing all this running around, meeting government agencies etc, because she’s not looking for a job, she’s creating one for herself. But not every case worker is happy with that, and the one the other day certainly wasn’t.

So here we are with the choices she’s made, whilst living in poverty, not eating properly, recovering from cancer. She’s fighting hard to get off the benefit, and they keep pulling her back. But she doesn’t want to be reliant on them.

Nobody wants to be reliant on anyone else, let alone a government agency who treats you with scorn, and doesn’t really know who you are, because nowadays you don’t have just one person who deals with you.

And nobody wants to live in a violent relationship. But it’s harder, and more dangerous, to leave.

And nobody wants to live in a crowded damp house. But that’s all there is available.

And nobody wants to move several times, and unsettle their kids, but sometimes you have to, to stay alive.

And nobody wants to have cancer. But shit happens.

I would prefer that people who have plenty of resources don’t make judgements about what choices people make when they’re under the gun. And I would put it to you that choices are not really choices when either one is absolutely crap.

Choice is a loaded word.

Please use it sparingly, and knowledgeably, if you want to talk to me about poverty in New Zealand.


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