Tips from the poverty line

by gabeatkinson / 10 January, 2013
20 years ago Christine Dann penned this article on low-income survival. While some tips now appear slightly quaint, others have a timeless utility and remain sound, practical advice.
LISTENER Feb 6 1993, #2757, P33


The cottage industry of good advice to the poor is one of the few growth industries these days. This advice has become so familiar it has attracted parodies, such as "how to make new beer crates out of old kauri dressers".

My research project on how poor people survive revealed that such "crazy" advice can make a lot more sense than most of the condescending stuff on how to make Christmas decorations out of old bottle tops and one "new" jersey out of five old unpicked ones. (The people I interviewed would say: "You mean they drink that much milk?", "You mean they have five old jerseys?")

Their reaction to the Child Health Foundation's menus on which to feed a family of four nutritious meals for only $100 a week was one of disbelief, as most of them have only half or less than that to spend on food each week.

I interviewed 23 of the 97,216 people on the domestic purposes benefit who had their benefits cut by 11-13 percent in April 1991. (The basic DPB for a parent with one child is $185.93 or $227.93 with Family Support). These benefits were, in some cases, supplemented with one or more of the following: a housing allowance, liable parent support scheme contributions, health support and training allowances. Extensive interviews by fellow researcher Rosemary Du Plessis and I revealed that they survive by patching together components of existence from various sources. Some strategies are strictly above board, such as growing and bottling one's own fruit. Some are more shady, such as cleaning someone's house for cash without declaring the income.

From these interviews, and two follow-up discussions, we now have a good idea of what it is that beneficiaries with children do to survive, and what practical advice to offer others in the same situation. Much of this advice appears paradoxical because it often goes against the grain of the exhortations from the how-to-be-poor advice industry. Advice from people I spoke to comes in three categories - positive, negative and cashless. Here are the hot tips from the experts, whose names have been changed to protect the innocent.


Do not hide away at home trying to justify your "dole-bludger" existence by hand-knitting yogurt. At the beach you and your children can engage in one of the few healthy recreations you can still afford. (Everyone says public pools have been off the budget for some time, although Anna arranges to share rental of the school pool key over summer.) You can collect driftwood for the fires you'll light in winter because you can't afford electricity (Rose, Maggie and Kim do this regularly, and others occasionally), you can collect seaweed for the garden that provides most of your vegetables, and (if you have a net, like Kim) you can catch flounder, which you couldn't afford to buy, and get most of your protein from fish. You can also enjoy yourself, and Jane is sure "anyone on a benefit has a right to enjoy life".


How else are you going to get to the beach? Even if public transport were there regularly, you'd probably have to take two buses and you either couldn't afford it (says Anna, who hasn't caught a bus since the blind subsidy she was eligible for was abolished), or trying to manage it with young children would be too stressful, say Jean and Eileen.

You also need a car to take advantage of supermarket specials, transport sick children to cut-price doctors, get to meetings and courses on budgeting, positive parenting and other survival subjects, and to get to polytech, university or other formal education courses and back in time to be there when the kids get home from school. Also to get to whatever paid work you can find. Not to mention feeling good about yourself and being able to pursue new opportunities - Rose learned to drive four years ago as a way to extend her life. She can now do voluntary social work and take her elderly mother on outings. Maggie says her car is her independence and also gives her a way to be someone, to hold her head up. Reduce the stresses associated with car ownership on a low budget by buying it for cash or with a no-interest loan from friends or family. Learn to fix it yourself, like Kim, find sources of cheap warrants, like Jane, run an (interest-free) repair account at the local garage, like Maggie, keep a credit card solely to cover car repairs, like Grace, and place a weekly limit on petrol expenditure and/or distances travelled, like most people.



Such stores are more likely to extend you credit in the form of a monthly account that carries no interest if paid by the due date - unlike other department stores that can charge interest as high as 24 percent. After getting into debt, Joy, Sonia and Anna don't use their cards with the high-interest store anymore. Joy uses the "best" store, where she has a $150 charge limit. Paula advises using the "best" store's credit for buying things that rarely come on special and have to be provided, such as school uniforms. Do not tell Social Welfare where you shop - staff hassled Paula about "shopping above her station", despite the evidence that she was saving money this way.


The best professionals for those on benefits to use are competent ones who either don't charge a lot, or extend free credit. There are doctors who don't charge for children, who offer cut rates for children and beneficiaries, who will consult over the phone, who will deal with a whole family for one consultation fee... so start shopping around. There are doctors, dentists, pharmacists, counsellors and opticians who will let you run an account. Find them, and then be as nice as you can to them, by paying on time, paying in kind if appropriate, coming straight to the point in consultations.


Dressing for success poor-style involves intelligent op-shopping and making the most of cast-offs. Maggie, like many beneficiaries, has no clothing budget, and asks her friends to remember her whenever they have a wardrobe clean-out. Phillipa is clothed by her twin sister. Joy goes on the occasional "op-shop blitz" with a friend, in which these last of the big spenders lash out $30 to $40 each. Making one's own is recommended only if the materials can be bought at a big reduction, as otherwise it is as expensive as buying secondhand or on-sale new clothing. Things that must be new, such as underwear and socks, are bought on sale or on lay-by. By such cheap means the poor person can put together a wardrobe suited to the purpose of her main public appearances, which usually involve asking for money. The "upmarket" outfit is for the bank manager, best store in town, or other lending agencies that require a favourable impression, and the "downmarket" outfit is for Social Welfare - which Lisa now visits wearing an old tracksuit, as she felt she was being judged as too well dressed, and therefore not in need of support at first. Jane says she is damned if her kids are going to look "orphan-like", so she puts a lot of effort into finding better secondhand clothing for them. Other parents favour the unisex approach, which means clothes last in the family longer. However, once sex-role stereotypes start hitting children hard around puberty this strategy loses its value.

School clothing is the major weakness in the "dress for success" strategy of the poor, as uniforms are so expensive, and have to be changed so often. At primary school it is possible to ignore the pressures to conform (especially if you are prepared to give class teachers a talking to, as Jane does, or shift your children to a less fussy school, as Jean has), but for secondary school you have to adopt other strategies such as buying cheap secondhand dyed uniforms, or getting grants from agencies such as the McKenzie Trust, Rotary or Birthright.


Not snails or quails - just Chinese, Italian, Maori, Irish - anything that doesn't follow the English/New Zealand dietary assumptions of meat every day, lots of dairy products, tea and coffee, and fresh fruit. By eliminating such frills from the diet and learning non-English cooking styles, it is possible to perform the miracle of the loaves and fishes not once but many times. Pasta and rice are cheap child-fillers, and poor people are experts on cheap meat cuts. "What you can't do with a packet of mince," as Helen remarked, "isn't worth knowing." But she wishes she didn't always have to search the supermarket freezer for the smallest packet, and make meals for five out of seven sausages.



If you've got any, dig it up and plant vegetables instead - the experts with room for a garden find it improves the quality and quantity of their diet. But a word of warning to Housing NZ tenants - make sure there are no plans to dump concrete all over your garden to create a driveway to a non-existent garage to house a car you don't even own (as happened to a Christchurch woman). Consider growing things in containers, or planting things that are easily moved, in the event that the rent is hiked so high you have to move and you don't want to pay twice for the improvements you have made to the property.


In the June/July 1992 "power crisis" one Christchurch family was proudly reported as saving $50 on its usual monthly power bill. If our experts were to save $50, most would be using no power at all. Most already save power far in excess of the recommended power crisis amounts, and by far more methods than those suggested by the power-supply authorities, even given that advice like switching off heated towel rails and second fridges and using your microwave instead of your oven is a nonsense for people who can't afford these appliances. Genuine poor people may write for detailed advice on power-saving for free - for the generators of the crisis and the escalating cost of power, shouldn't it be user pays?


Take the longest course you can for which you are eligible for an allowance. So long as you don't have false expectations of a real job at the end of your training course (for every one person on the DPB there are two registered unemployed) this is more stimulating than staying at home, and the allowance is a plus. Social Welfare has a patchy record in informing people about training allowances, so push for information, and/or try approaching it from the Employment Department end. Ask for transport and child care as well as fees assistance. Sonia found her business skills training at polytech worthwhile personally and financially, although she is now over-qualified for the temporary file clerk job she is doing under the aegis of Task Force Green. Kim may have more success with her training in welding, although the only job she has been offered to date is out of town. Grace was a star student on a tourism training course, but the only job on offer was a night-time receptionist, which is obviously not compatible with child-care responsibilities for a solo parent.



The best schools are those that don't overload parents and children with expectations and expenses they can't meet. Grace's and Jenny's children go to high schools that run accounts for parents who want to pay off books and stationery expenses, trips, manual training fees, etc, in small amounts over the year. Some schools raise funds collectively to cover trip and camp fees for children who would otherwise miss out. Some schools relax clothing standards and/or direct parents to sources of help with clothing and other school expenses. The best schools don't ostracise or patronise parents on benefits.


Lapsed Christians should think about reviving their faith. The four churchgoers in the study advise that their congregations are a source of food, friendly social contact, and moral support. Choose the right church - Claire changed hers to find a supportive congregation. Non-Christians can find groups that offer similar amounts of practical and spiritual support - our experts mention options like Alcoholics Anonymous, Women's Refuge, Pillars, a meditation group, a strong friendship network. Church-based charitable agencies (you don't have to be a Christian to use them) are recommended - Sonia says Presbyterian Support has been much more use than Social Welfare, and Jean, Wilma and Cheryl are similarly grateful to the Methodist Central Mission.


Not your IQ - your information sources. Today's bureaucrats and politicans definitely follow the mushroom ("keep 'em in the dark and feed them horseshit") principle of government, according to our experts, so they recommend that the poor cultivate alternative sources of intelligence to tell them what money and services are available to assist them, and how they can get it.

After being knocked back by DSW, Sonia "sat on the phone until I found people who could help me". Lisa eavesdrops on what is being said to other Social Welfare clients - otherwise she never would have found out about training and disability allowances. Jane and Joy play the old "nice/nasty" strategy with DSW employees - being pleasant to start with but complaining up the line if they don't get satisfaction. Groups such as Women's Refuge, Pillars, and the church agencies are good sources of information. John feels confident enough to confront his MP and demand to know what's going on. Other poor people are excellent sources of information on everything from the benefits to which you are entitled, to where to find a cheap doctor. Every poor person copes better with a network of friends in similar situations who can offer support and advise.


There is a fairly high chance that someone on the DPB will get sick anyway, from living in a house that is too cold, on an inadequate diet with too many money worries, plus the responsibility of raising children alone. So do it properly and get the 15 prescriptions that take one over into the free category as fast a possible. Or maybe one of the children will do it on behalf of the family - Joy's and Sonia's asthmatic sons did. Anna has a nice doctor who wrote her out lots of prescriptions for simple remedies such as calamine lotion and paracetemol to take her over the limit - but we've heard that the "thought police" are on to that one.


There are two men in every beneficiary's life - Peter and Paul. If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned "robbing Peter to pay Paul" I could have bought everyone a round of drinks. Most of the experts do budget plans - Sonia does hers a year in advance, and Wilma stresses that one has to budget everything, including one's time, health and happiness - but even super-budgeters find themselves dipping into Peter's pocket time and time again. As Jane says - "it does not compute". Current benefit levels are too low to support families without an overall debt (most of the experts are in permanent debt) or without transferring debt within the budget, so school expenses must sometimes come from the food part of the budget, or health expenses from the power account. This sometimes leads to what the experts perceive as real craziness - like robbing the food budget to pay for medicine - but what can they do?

So although everyone would gladly see the back of Peter and Paul, in the meantime one may as well come to terms with them, and accept that such transfers are a necessary part of living on too little, and that it doesn't mean one is a "bad manager."



The poor are not talking about the much promoted Clayton's cashless society, where you "put it on the plastic", but the genuine no-money-at-all cashless economy. The one where you barter and exchange goods and services because you have no cash. Three experts are members of the Plains Exchange and Barter system (PLEBS), Christchurch's "green dollar" organisation, which is high-tech exchange and barter, and going from strength to strength. When Wilma needed a fence to enclose her toddlers, the best Housing NZ could offer was a $50 voucher for shrubs. Through PLEBS she got the fence built before the children were too old to need it. John operates an informal exchange and barter system among his large network of friends - in exchange for painting, concreting and other labour he gets free holiday accommodation and clothing repairs.


You deserve to. Is there a cabinet minister who is doing better when it comes to:

  • Stimulating the local economy without cash or debt by engaging in barter and exchange deals?

  • Feeding a whole family on the petfood budget of the rich?

  • Setting such a sterling example of power conservation?

  • Upholding the glorious Kiwi do-it-yourself tradition?

  • Drinking as little alcohol and avoiding rich foods?

  • Taking personal care of their children?

  • Making as little impact on global warming and the greenhouse effect?

  • Participating in the community?

  • Dressing economically and sensibly?

  • Showing such entrepreneurial survival skills?

  • Managing debt?

Of course not. So be proud to be poor. The only good advice the poor really need is: the rich have got your cash - don't let them get the credit as well.
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