Feeding a hungry family well on a benefit

Is it even possible? Today’s rant brought to you by WINZ benefit rates and the Healthy Eating, Healthy Action report for the Ministry of Health. In particular, sole parent benefit rates and the estimated cost of feeding children, and how they measure up.

Let’s tot up a typical sole-parent benefit rate for someone living in my home town, which is just outside Wellington. Close enough to have similar food costs, and usually higher transport costs, but far enough out to be a bit cheaper rent-wise than many Wellington suburbs. An Area 3 kind of place, for those that know the WINZ Accommodation Supplement system. Our sole parent has two boys, who are 12 and 15.

So. Incomings. There’s a base benefit rate of $300.98, whether on a Sole Parent benefit with under-5s or on Jobseeker Support with older children. Then, there’s the Area 3 Accommodation Supplement, which comes to $120. Finally, there’s the Family Tax Credit, which is $92.73 for a first child under 16, and another $64.44 for a second child under 13. So, all up, $578.12. Not a terrible amount, I guess.

Now, outgoings. It seems that you can get a liveable home at the moment in a cheaper area for about $315 or so a week, give or take. Power for a 4-person family home during the day with electrical heating and hot water apparently works out to about $240/month on Meridian (who were the only people nice enough to give me some sort of online estimate tool), so that’s around $60 per week. Internet/phone is another $80/month – $20/week. So, for the bare-basics that’s $395/week, and there’s no allowance in there for transport, or clothes, or shoes, or school supplies, or doctor’s appointments, or prescriptions, or really much of anything you need to live. But, after these bare basics, we have $183.12 per week left over. That’s pretty decent, right?

The Healthy Eating, Healthy Action report (p.17) is lovely in that it gives us some estimates (that are way out of date as the report was written in 2003, but it’s the newest that I can find) of how much it costs to feed a family. Using the low-end estimates, it will cost $83 to feed each boy, plus $62 to feed Mum, which comes to $228 per week, and that doesn’t include essentials like toilet paper and bleach. There’s a bit of a gap there.

Poor families get lambasted all the time for eating poor diets and being overweight and unhealthy. But the government’s own figures show that it’s actually not possible to feed a family well on a benefit. How do we condemn people for their bad choices when they’re the only choices they have, and they’re the only choices they have because they’re the only choices they are given by those in power?

It doesn’t matter what ages the children are, either, or whether you get disability allowances or any other normal benefit. The numbers just don’t stack up no matter how you tweak them. Being on a benefit simply precludes the option of feeding your family quality food. It’s a shameful situation – that people actually believe that poor or unemployed people don’t deserve to eat healthy food, or live in warm dry homes, or any of the things that every human being should have. If they believed that the unemployed were equal human beings, then they would advocate them having the same rights as those with good jobs and nice houses and good food on the table, but the poor aren’t equals in many minds. They’re lesser for being born into less fortunate circumstances, or for having personal disasters, or whatever has put them in a bad position. That thinking, the thinking that condemns the poor and unemployed to living hard lives and opens them up to judgement for it, is cruel, and should be criminal.

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