John Key thinks that people using food banks are engaged in a lifestyle choice. So where's the evidence?

Danyl Mclauchlan at the Dim-Post has an interesting take on John Key (excuse the profanity ... he's a very rude young man):

"Key’s performance in Parliament is very different from the Key we see on public display. In this environment the Prime Minister is, basically, a sneering jerk who doesn’t seem to know anything about what his Ministers are doing, or care very much about the impact of his government’s policies, a great example being his statement yesterday that beneficiaries are people who made a ‘lifestyle choice’, a choice that seems heavily influenced by the record surge in unemployment that’s happened under Key’s government – yet another dire economic indicator that Question Time Key couldn’t really give a shit about."

The quote Danyl is referencing is from this NZ Herald story, given in response to a Labour Party question about the Salvation Army's claim that food parcel demand is rapidly increasing under National's watch:

""But it is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one's bills.

"And that is true because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit do actually pay for food, their rent and other things. Now some make poor choices and they don't have money left.""

This is a common trope amongst those on the centre-right (and further out along the spectrum, too). Welfare benefits provide more than enough to survive on, so a failure to cope is the fault of the individual concerned. (Not to mention that the fact the individual is on a benefit is, to a large extent, their own fault anyway.)

It's a view that is by no means limited to those MPs sitting in the National or ACT caucuses. Witness John Tamihere's call back in 2003 to privatise welfare so as to stop beneficiaries "frittering away their money on lotto and cigarettes" (as I/S blogged about here at the time).

And every story like this one or this one helps underscore that message - benefits are routinely abused by greedy chancers who misuse the money to fund their lazy preferences. David Farrar uses it to explain the growth of food bank use and welfare fund claims at Victoria University (and, by implication, the community generally): "students like free money and free food."

But let's put anecdote and speculation to one side and have a look at what actual evidence exists for the particular claim that foodbank use primarily is caused by a failure to budget properly and poor "lifestyle choices".

Well, there's this 2006 M.A. thesis from Canterbury, which finds:

"Food bank clients are generally living at or below subsistence level, and it appears that often it is a financial crisis that pushes the household over the edge financially. Food becomes a key problem once such a crisis has occurred. It has consistently been found that inadequate benefit levels, the cost of housing, and household bills are key factors contributing to food bank use (Olds et al., 1991; MacKay, 1995; NZCCSS, 2005a). Despite popular misconceptions, it is rarely due to poor household budgeting or poor decision making (NZNAFP, 1999)."

And there's this 2005 M.A. thesis from VUW, which also finds:

"there is a general perception that food insecurity is the fault of the individual; they must be inept budgeters, ignorant of cheap and healthy food choices, or incompetent parents. Research with low-income families has found that these beliefs are unsubstantiated. Several research projects in New Zealand have shown that because food is the only discretionary item in a low-income family’s budget, it is the only item that can be reduced during times of financial stress (Barker & Currie, 1994; Sadler, Rea, & Nicholls, 1995; Waldegrave & Stuart, 1996).

Barker and Currie (1994) in their research on food insecurity in Christchurch state:

'... people were unable to access food because the money that they had was insufficient to meet their needs... there wasn’t enough money to manage no matter how well it was budgeted.'"

That's a conclusion backed by this 2008 report by the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services (NZCCSS):

"The majority of the foodbanks' clients only received one food parcel in the 3 month period covered. They were not using the foodbank as a regular strategy to cover a shortfall, rather they were driven to seek help by desperate circumstances", said Mr McGlinchey. "In October to December 2007, even after year-on-year increases in economic activity, many beneficiaries and low-paid workers were still not earning enough to always be able to purchase basic food supplies".

Now, I don't want to overstate things here. It undoubtedly is true that some individuals abuse the generosity of their fellow citizens as represented by food banks (as well as tax-funded benefits).

(However, I wonder what John Key's answer really implies for that generosity - if the only people using foodbanks are feckless wastrels, does that mean I should stop donating to them? Am I not simply rewarding poor choices by doing so? Wouldn't it be better to be cruel to be kind?)

Equally, none of the above says anything about the desirability of living on a benefit. I believe (as I'm sure almost all beneficiaries do) that working in a financially and psychologically rewarding job is far, far more preferable to a life on a benefit. I'm also not necessarily averse to measures that give individuals the bump they may need to move off a benefit into employment - while also recognising that such policies often have a different agenda.

However, it seems to me, having reviewed such evidence as I can find on this subject, that John Key just plain got it wrong with his answer about food bank demand. Which is a bit disappointing, given how important a topic it really is.

Comments (29)

by stuart munro on February 17, 2011
stuart munro

I'm afraid Key is lifting his error rate at the moment. 

 Better that he actually decided to do his job and rebuild even part of the economy.

But on the bump they may need to get off a benefit,

People become averse to things that don't work. Chasing phantoms jobs in a shrinking economy: what fun. Better for most to go to Australia - If New Zealand doesn't owe you a living, you don't owe it a life.

by Tim Watkin on February 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

Jeez, what a comment. That ticks me off. As someone who's worked in a foodbank and interviewed recipients, my impression is in line with the research quoted... It's usually the extra bill that screws things up - the broken washing machine, the new school uniform or trip, the Christmas presents, three kids whose shows all wear out at the same time... It becomes a question of food or that item.

Perhaps an episode of Undercover Boss could be arranged for our PM, to spend a week working down in Panmure, for example. Y'know, actually talk to those folks...

If Goff's people had any sense, they'd have him down at a foodbank handing out parcels asap.

by Andrew Geddis on February 17, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"If Goff's people had any sense, they'd have him down at a foodbank handing out parcels asap."

Yes ... but they'd probably screw it up and send him to a bank bank, whereupon he'd get filmed trying to force some wealthy retired lady who'd just popped in to check her account to take a loaf of bread and packet of cheese.

Cue follow up interview: "I wasn't sure who he was or what he wanted - he seemed like a very nice man, but I didn't need the bread. My portfolio is doing very well at the moment."

by Tim Watkin on February 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

Ha! It's funny cos it's true.

by Eszett on February 17, 2011

No, Tim, it's very sad cos it's true

by Andin on February 17, 2011

"Welfare benefits provide more than enough to survive on, so a failure to cope is the fault of the individual concerned. (Not to mention that the fact the individual is on a benefit is, to a large extent, their own fault anyway.)"

If anyone sez that in my hearing distance they will be sure to get an ear bashing of prodigious proportions.

And where's that damn Deborah Coddington. In her zeal to bash the "Spirit Level" she trampled boots and all over a central tenet of human existence. Compassion for other human beings, no matter what your own circumstances And alleviating the suffering of our fellow beings. By facetiously saying we could/should all be Kiri Te Kanawa's in this world. She must have left her brain at home that day. Go away and Read "The Moral Landscape". And ditch the neoliberalism, Ayn Rand was a hack. One passable book does not make a new world.

by MikeM on February 18, 2011

"there is a general perception that food insecurity is the fault of the individual; they must be inept budgeters, ignorant of cheap and healthy food choices, or incompetent parents. Research with low-income families has found that these beliefs are unsubstantiated."

With budgeting as an example, I realise it's a complex issue, but I do have trouble intuitively grasping this researched assertion.

Having grown up around the tail end of some of gen X and quite a lot of gen Y, I've seen many people who simply don't understand money at all, living on credit card debt, repaying the minimum each month and with no impression or care of why this is bad. And they'd never been stung or had anyone explain things to them in a way that caught their attention, so why should they? Most people I knew simply ended up with a little luck and good enough jobs to float themselves out of it, but in circumstances without good role models and people to give advice, I can see how easy it'd be to fall into bad credit records and debt with high interest loansharks and all those other horrid things.

Obviously people make their own choices, but the way they get to making these choices (which really disadvantages everyone in NZ) can't be so simple as just blaming them. I've wondered for a long time where the coordinated nationwide emphasis is for teaching people seriously about money and giving good role models long before they actually have a chance to get any. From what I've seen anecdotally it's seemed to be at least one place where the system's failed.

by donna on February 18, 2011

Thanks for this piece.

For the record my research is also consistent with that cited here. Most people use foodbanks once or twice, and generally because they have had an unbudgeted expense, most often the car needing to be repaired. Almost all foodbanks keep records, and clients who use them more than once or twice a year are usually refered automatically to budgeting services and have their WINZ entitlements checked.

Yet ultimately families who have been on low incomes, whether wage or benefit income, for a long time do not have the choices Mr Key claims. And no amount of nanny state requirements to attend budgeting classes will fix that. The PM is out of touch although as Dim-Post notes, he really doesn't seem to give a shit.

by The Falcon on February 18, 2011
The Falcon

Here's some original research from me. Drive down High Street and Farmer Crescent in Lower Hutt some time... 90% of the state houses there are equipped with Sky satellite dishes. Maybe if beneficiaries cancelled their Sky Movies subscription they could afford food.

John Key grew up in a household reliant on a benefit, they seemed to manage. Students live happily on $160 per week, why are dole bludgers any different?

by Andrew Geddis on February 18, 2011
Andrew Geddis


Without wishing to be overly picky, the question isn't "do some beneficiaries still have enough money to afford Sky?" (Even then I'm wary of anecdotal "my perception of things is X" type evidence.) The limited question rather is, do those people using food banks do so purely because of poor budgeting choices or because of a genuine inability to make ends meet (no matter how carefully they budget)? All I've said is that the available evidence I could locate indicates that the latter is the case, not the former. If you're able to locate counter evidence beyond "I don't agree with that conclusion because I don't like it", then feel free to share.

With regards John Key, yes - his Mum was on the DPB and managed. But for that to be relevant, you'd have to show the relative value of the DPB when he was a kid compared to what it is today. Bet you it was a lot higher back then. And yes, some students can "live happily" on $160 a week. Without children. And free health care through student health. And living in group accommodation, wherein electricity/phone/rental costs are shared.

by Tim Watkin on February 18, 2011
Tim Watkin

I heard Diane Robertson on the radio yesterday... She pointed out that there's a limit to the number of foodbank parcels you can get a year... it was either four or six. She pointed out that anyone who comes in for a parcel is carefully checked and asked awkward questions to make sure they don't have other resources. Most are refered to budgeting services, but she made the point that's consistent with my anecdotal experience, which is that the beneficiaries I've met are some of the best, most creative budgeters you'll ever meet.

Getting by as a sole parent on $300/week takes quite some doing! I'd love to see Key, or any MP, do it.

by Matthew Percival on February 18, 2011
Matthew Percival

I think this issue is somewhat more complex than the simple "Beneficiary receives x amount of dollars in and pays x amount of dollars out" every week approach.

I do wonder what happened to the concept of saving for a rainy day. Why do these people have no assets and no savings prior to going on the benefit? Yes, the last year or so has been a bit tough but before then the economy was humming, giving opportunity to save.

I also wonder where the rest of the extended families are in these situations. If I heard my sister was having to use a food bank from time to time I'd be chipping in a bit to help her out and get her back on track. Why do their families not seem to care?

It also amazes me that in a number of case studies I have seen, Beneficiaries rent rather than moving back home or in with other family to reduce their rent. Sure, in some instances that isn't an option but I will suggest in some cases it is an option.

Stuart, this article suggests there are plenty of opportunities in New Zealand provided you have invested in yourself.

Finally, if Beneficiaries are using a foodbank once every 3 or so months doesn't that suggest the Benefit system is working reasonably well? A Benefit should be providing for the minimum and not much more as a temporary measure between jobs. If a beneficiary has to visit a foodbank 4 times a year on the back of no savings/assets then I will suggest that Benefits are fairly close to where they should be. 


by The Falcon on February 18, 2011
The Falcon

Do those people using food banks do so purely because of poor budgeting choices or because of a genuine inability to make ends meet (no matter how carefully they budget)?

Andrew - if it is possible for 90% of beneficiaries to manage on the money they are given, then unless the other 10% have some exceptional and unusual costs, there is obviously something wrong with their budgeting.

What makes these 10% so special that they can't manage like the others? Most exceptional/unusual costs such as rare health conditions, accidents etc, are covered by other government welfare programs, so it probably can't be put down to that. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that bad budgeting (e.g. Sky Digital) is the problem.

by Claire Browning on February 18, 2011
Claire Browning


I have a Sky satellite dish on my roof. For a long time, it was unused. Now it gets Freeview, which is ... free.

by The Falcon on February 18, 2011
The Falcon

Claire: these are, and have always been, state houses. At some stage, a state house tenant had the spare cash to subscribe to Sky TV. This is disgraceful considering that plenty of people who actually work for a living don't have Sky.

by Cushla McKinney on February 18, 2011
Cushla McKinney

I think Mike and Falcon are onto something; let's means test every applicant's friends and family and  require them to cancel their Sky subscription before they are eligible for the benefit.

Hands up who wants to live in a a society like that...


by Cushla McKinney on February 18, 2011
Cushla McKinney

Woops sorry, should have been Matt and Falcon, not Mike and Falcon.

by stuart munro on February 18, 2011
stuart munro

@ Matthew - the newspaper article and the real job don't have a lot in common. I recall a period in the 90s when I walked eight kms across Christchurch (couldn't afford the bus fare) for a part time job in a fish and chip shop. Didn't get it. I did that kind of crap for months. Nada. That was the period that fractured my belief in polyanna bromides released by employer groups and their political apologists. Show me the money.

While we're on Sky - the dish doesn't mean they are still meeting the payments. There are a lot of energetic salesmen out there, just not so many customers.

& Falcon - many state house tenants have worked all their lives. They just haven't made enough to afford the step up to something different. These folk have a perfect right to a few small pleasures.

by Andrew Geddis on February 18, 2011
Andrew Geddis


"What makes these 10% so special that they can't manage like the others? Most exceptional/unusual costs such as rare health conditions, accidents etc, are covered by other government welfare programs, so it probably can't be put down to that. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that bad budgeting (e.g. Sky Digital) is the problem."

That's not argument from evidence, it's an attempt at a logical syllogism:

(1) 90% (or whatever) of beneficiaries manage their expected costs by budgeting properly.

(2) All unexpected costs are met by WINZ grants, etc.

(3) Therefore, the only explanation for the 10% (or whatever) turning to food banks is that they cannot have budgeted properly.

The uncertain point is, of course, (2). What if it turns out that (i) there are circumstances where WINZ grants, etc are not available as a matter of law; or (ii) WINZ grants, etc are available as a matter of law, but an individual for some reason fails to realise that they can access them (and that failure is in some way the fault of governmental agencies); or (iii) WINZ grants, etc ought to be available as a matter of law, but individuals are being wrongly denied them? If any of these situations apply, then your basic claim that "it must be the fault of the person going to the foodbank" doesn't really hold up.

But, in any case - you are still attempting to say "the research cited, which concludes on the basis of actual interaction with food bank users that poor budgeting is not the cause of people turning to food banks, simply cannot be true ... it just can't". That's a pretty weak argument - unless and until you can come up with actual empirical research to cast doubt on it. After all, if it's so obvious, there must be some out there. Right?

by DeepRed on February 18, 2011

To those playing the bludger card: I cite the case of Sara, 35, of Waitakere. A mother-of-one who's fled a violent husband, aspiring to become a scientist, doesn't keep up with the Joneses - and driven to starvation by ladder-kicking mean-spiritedness.

It's heartening to see people who do care, helping out those who refuse to surrender to the ladder-kickers

Sadly, ladder kicking is becoming the new tall poppy syndrome, and I don't see it ending well.

by The Falcon on February 19, 2011
The Falcon


It's nice you provided 2 links to MA theses. I don't have any links to provide that prove my point, only logical deduction. But a quick read of the first few pages of each of your linked theses discredits them as scientific studies.

This thesis argues that responses to food insecure children must... be founded on the principle of social justice rather than charity.

And the second one:

Although the neo-liberal reforms of the mid-1980s and early 1990s promised to deliver economic growth, reduce poverty, and reduce unemployment, by 1999 New Zealand fared much worse on all three accounts than it had 15 years earlier (Dalziel, 1999)

Despite the obvious bias displayed in the first few pages (which would have been SO easy to conceal if the writers had the discipline to resist quoting Dalziel in the first page), the studies may still be valid. It's hard to say. But such bias makes me sceptical of the conclusions.

by Andrew Geddis on February 19, 2011
Andrew Geddis


That's fine - but everyone has their biases. Choosing a picture of a bald eagle atop a US flag with "God Bless America" on it as your identifying icon indicates you may have a certain predisposition towards "the truth" here as well. (Unless, of course, there's a Colbert Report irony at work here?)

I guess the difference is that the theses I cited have searched for and cited evidence for their claims (politically motivated though these may be) to an extent sufficient to be accepted as valid within the academic community. Sure, that's hardly a foolproof test of what is correct. But, I reiterate, it's the best available indication of what is correct that I could locate when writing the post, and it sure is a hell of a lot better than John Key's original unsupported claim.

by Andrew Geddis on February 20, 2011
Andrew Geddis

More on this topic in this Sunday Star-Times article.

by Andin on February 20, 2011

"Here's some original research from me"

you crack me up.....

by The Falcon on February 21, 2011
The Falcon

BACK AT the Downtown Community Ministry, "Jack" (not his real name) outlines his weekly expenses. From the $240 he receives in benefits, he pays $120 in rent, $50 for cigarettes and $20 on beer. Power is automatically deducted at $25 a week. "By the time I have a bit of fun, that's dole day gone."

Jack's addictions make him a poster boy for those who say the poor have only themselves to blame. His response?
"My first cigarette was at intermediate school. Don't blame me, blame society. I just started because it was one of those things that was cool, and I just got hooked."

He worked for the Railways for 15 years. "Nobody told me there was a big drinking culture in that workplace."

A poster boy indeed. No kids, $240 per week, claims to not be able to afford food. God knows how students manage on $160 per week then. Oh wait, they all manage just fine.

by Chris de Lisle on February 21, 2011
Chris de Lisle

"God knows how students manage on $160 per week then. Oh wait, they all manage just fine."

Depends where we are. In the big centres it tends to roughly cover rent (Or rent + transport). A job will usually be necessary to pay for food, power & telephone. And there's nothing wrong with that, at all.

But it likely means that very little gets saved away and that if some sort of large unexpected expense (eg. $750 for wisdom tooth extraction) comes along things are difficult. The money simply isn't there.

I don't see where the budgeting failure is in that. I've also known people who squander benefits of all sorts, but it soon bites them in the backside; they fail to make their rent payments, their power bill etc.

In the former situation, the foodbank might well be very useful in coping with the shortfall, so that rent payments aren't missed etc. In the case of the chronically bad budgetter, though, a foodparcel's far too small to make an otherwise unsustainable lifestyle possible.


by DeepRed on February 21, 2011

And there's also the glaring hypocrisy of the plutocrat class - on the one hand they lecture the have-nots about being incapable of budgeting, but on the other hand they also look down on them for not owning the latest model suburban assault vehicle or what-have-you.

by Petone on February 21, 2011

On the side-topic of whether John Key is a decent likeable down-to-earth guy, or a sneering jerk;

About 5 years ago RDU breakfast host Kate Orgias interviewed John Key, in part about the Exlusive Brethren and the Hollow Men. I found myself thinking yep, fair point, that sounds reasonable etc (even trying to discount Kate's beyond-affable style - she's not a nail-them-to-the-wall interviewer).  The next morning she  interviewed Nicky Hagar who provided the detail behind several crucial points. It became clear that Key had very adroitly led one to believe something quite different from what had actually occurred, without ever actually lying or hesitating or losing that reassuring tone.

It was a virtuoso display of deception, and I'd love to know whether Key was provided with Kate's questions beforehand to prepare.

So my take on Key is that he's so slippery its scary, and shouldn't be known as anything other than Teflon John.

Andrew - if you're in touch with Nicky, would be interesting if he has transcripts of the two interviews.

by on February 22, 2011

I really enjoyed reading your article Andrew. I feel like this topic can be emotive and devisive amongst friends and strangers. It's encouraging and impressive to read your piece with focus on academic research.

My comment comes a bit late but: Mike M, awesome reply. I come from a background of limited means and family being on a benefit. And man, I really wish I had a good financial role model. I find all that stuff really hard.

The government has provided resources in etc, but your post makes me think... if NZ leadership was passionate about comprehensive grass-roots financial education, NZ could avoid serious social welfare cost... and at the other end, drive more of the young workforce to be even more imaginative and committed to wealth creation and economic growth. As a small country, I (naively?) reckon have the potential to introduce it fast and pragmatically.

Slippery he might be, but Joe public admires that John Key is a successful businessman. He could inspire people to support such an effort. Problem is, it would take a long time to see the benefits of increased education that he might not think it's worth his (political) while...

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