The cost of food

Yesterday’s NZ Herald carried the report on food costs that they seem to make quarterly or so. It carries the headline “Food prices: Mums skip meals for kids”. They’re right, mothers often do miss out on food so their kids can eat. Rising food prices are just going to make it worse.

As I said, this article comes around every three months or so, and every time it does there’s an article on how hard-up people are, and what food they’re going to be missing out on (hint: it’s always meat and milk). Someone at the paper will look at the latest report and do the official requirement (reporting on the food cost official release) and try to add the human element (talk about the plight of people that’s worsening due to rising food costs).

This has been going on for years. Rising food prices are simply a fact of life – I’m never going to feed my family on less than $10 like my grandmother. And the poverty that means that mum goes without has been around for the history of humanity. We can do better.

Mums aren’t eating because the family does not have enough coming in, or they have too many things going out. I can see four likely scenarios here. I’ll start from the last.

-> Mum and/or dad is spending way more than they’re earning. They’re spending recklessly, and then suffering for it. In this scenario, the most important thing is that the kids are getting food. Mum and/or dad need to get themselves some budgeting advice that they can stick to. I don’t know how common this is, other than perhaps due to addiction. If that’s the case, then social services might be needed.

-> Mum and/or dad is trying to service debt that they can’t afford but needed to take on. Debt for things like a new fridge after the last one died, or to feed the family in a low patch, like a week off work sick. In this scenario, the kids get fed, but the parents are going to suffer badly until they pay off the debt somehow. They may be a family that can usually make ends meet well enough, but there is not enough in the budget for much in the way of savings. These slightly better off people are in a bad spot – they’re a little too well-off for WINZ, but they’re still stuck in the poverty trap, never getting ahead because the realities of living stop them. Perhaps a work promotion might pull them up out of the mire. It’s a difficult place to be in, and statistically they’re not likely to escape it.

-> Mum and/or dad is on a benefit, and that benefit does not pay enough to feed a family. If they’re on a benefit, then the second clause is inevitable, because WINZ do not pay enough to live on, even to young families, families with kids that need to go to school on a full stomach, have a nutritious lunch, and go to bed on a full stomach. WINZ don’t care that your kid is getting fed only because Mum goes without a lot of the time. Their job is to get you the hell of the benefit (you dole-bludger), not to care that you aren’t solvent enough to afford milk or meat to feed the kids.

-> Mum and/or dad work at the minimum wage. They’re our favorite working poor, who get tax credits and so on, but still can’t make end meet. Why? Because $13.50 an hour is barely enough to support a single person on, and supporting kids on it is near impossible. Tax credits help, and on top of a basic living wage they would make raising children less of a struggle, but as it is, the tax credits are a a bandage covering the greater problem of inadequate wages.

Life is hard. Life is harder when you’re on a crappy wage and you’re in debt. Life is even harder when you’re trying to raise kids in these conditions. It’s something that well-off families will never really understand, but anyone that’s lived in any of these conditions knows too well. We need to do something about it. We think of ourselves as a first-world nation, yet we still have kids that go to school with no lunch and no shoes. We have a charity dedicated to fixing those problems (never mind World Vision, KidsCan starts with the problem on our own doorstep).

Give our poor some dignity. Pay a living wage. Increase the benefit to at least enough to live on. If we can’t do those things, we condemn a quarter of our kids to live in poverty and deprivation, and that’s a monstrous thing to do if we have the power to change it.

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