Out Of Touch With Poverty, Mr Jones?

Sir Bob Jones knows there's no such thing as a free lunch, but his cafe codswallop shows the multi-millionaire is woefully ignorant about reality of poverty in New Zealand

The New Zealand Herald a few days back had a column by Bob Jones on the problem of poor people. What he says is stunningly obtuse, and it perpetuates some silly ideas.

His main thesis is that people go out for lunch at work, and that if people were really poor, they would make their own lunches. Which kind of sounds fair, right?

New Zealand cafe culture, however, does not thrive off the backs of the poor. You don't see cafes in the poor parts of town. Bakeries maybe, or pie shops, but not cafes. Cafes are in the middle of town, where middle and upper-class people can frequent them on their breaks from their decent jobs. Cafe culture is not supported by the poor. It's supported by those who have a wee bit of disposable income.

He goes on to claim that people can be spending $150/week on cafe lunches. Now, if you're earning $472.60/week (legal minimum wage for a 40-hour week, after tax), and trying to support a family on that, there is no way on earth that you could spend $150/week on food just for yourself. If he really thinks there are people who are truly poor spending that kind of money on lunches, he's utterly out of touch.

Yes, some poor people may sometimes treat themselves to something from the bakery, but there's no way it's anywhere near as common as he asserts.

He bewails the fact that people don't grow their own food any more, or keep chickens for eggs. If we leave aside the number of poor people who live in circumstances where these things are not possible (living in cheap apartment blocks, or landlords not allowing them to dig up the lawn for veges, or simply not enough space), his argument still doesn't hold much water. I used to keep a vege garden, and it was a good supplement to our diets, but I could not grow nappies, or rice, or toilet paper, or meat. It was a supplement, but it did not magically pull me out of poverty. And the moment he starts trying to identify with the common man by saying he has a garden, he follows up by shooting himself in the foot by admitting he employs two gardeners to do the work.

Finally, he has a snipe at parents who can't afford to feed their kids properly. So, let's run through a fairly common scenario. Solo parent, three kids, minimum wage. Earns $472.60/week.

  • Rent of $280/week (cheapest currently on Trademe for Lower Hutt).
  • Power runs to maybe $50/week in winter (based on personal experience).
  • Phone line is $10/week (Telecom, $46/month).
  • Cellphone is maybe $5/week (based on one $20 top-up per month).
  • After school care for the two oldest is $40/week (based on full OSCAR subsidy, from my own budget).
  • Daycare for the youngest is $30/week (full subsidy, based on my own budget). Insurance for contents and car is $20/week (based on my own budget). We're up to $385 already, and we haven't even thought about food yet.
  • So, we have $87.60 for food (we're imagining that cars run on thin air, or maybe that we don't have one, although then comes the cost of public transport). 

Now what happens when a sudden expense comes up? A doctor's visit runs to around $60 for an adult. Car trouble? That can take food money for a full month.

Being unable to feed your kids is a realistic scenario. Yes, there are subsidies that will assist our imaginary single mother, but they don't raise her head far above water. All it takes is one single unbudgeted disaster (and every disaster is unbudgeted, because there's not much money left to save for anything) and it all goes south. She's sitting there debating whether to not pay her power, not pay her rent, or not eat.

Mr Jones, your pear tree in the back yard is not going to solve this kind of problem.

I promise you, there aren't hordes of people in the deepest poverty going out and spending $30 a day on cafe lunches. That's purely your imagination.