When there's no choice

By Karlo Mila

Tongan-Palagi poet Karlo Mila reflects on what inequality feels like for many Polynesian families.

Karlo Mila's viewpoint is food for thought. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Karlo Mila's viewpoint is food for thought. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Inequality means watching people close to you - extended family, community networks, neighbours and friends - who are persistently struggling, in challenging circumstances, to try to maintain their dignity, to keep their households afloat, to do their best for their children and to make good decisions by weighing up the constrained range of choices on offer to them.

I use the word "constrained" quite deliberately, because although there is a notion that everyone in this country enjoys a full range of free choices, in fact many have to deal with what academics call "default choice".

People with limited resources are forced to "choose" less than optimum options by default, through lack of knowledge, resources, time, local facilities or power. It is what happens when you can't afford a car and all the shops within a walking radius sell cheap liquor, pokies, five different types of deep-fried food, and no fruit and vegetables. It is what happens when the schools around you serve up an accent to your 5-year-old so that he sounds like Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors and learns not to make eye contact with adults, rather than numeracy and literacy.

It is what happens when he comes home and asks you why he has a black face.

It is what happens when you don't feel safe walking down your streets unless you have gang protection, and four out of five of the older boys, brothers and cousins you admire, are already finding that this is the only sphere in which they shine, where they are respected, accepted and recognised as powerful and productive.

It is what happens when the real banks won't lend you money and the loan sharks are wooing you, cheap bait for bad debt. And when no one you know actually owns their own house, or knows what a PhD is, or has plans for their future. And most of your time is spent making sure that you can get food on the table and that the power won't get cut off; and you know there is no money for extras like Saturday sport for your talented kids because you can't afford boots or fees, no swimming lessons, and no class photos, and no Lucky Book club books; and your children already know that there are things in life that are beyond their reach, that are not for them, and they are already feeling it in ways that make them burn inside.

* Extract from Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis.

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