I have been Auckland City Missioner for almost a year now and during that time I have seen many different sides of our city. I have seen kindness, generosity and the great spirit of compassion that is evident in so many Aucklanders. I have also seen the resilience and strength of character of the people needing help from the City Mission. These are frequently women, mothers and grandmothers, who are sacrificing so much for the children they are bringing up, existing on nothing but still making do and getting by.
I have had a lifetime of being exposed to the injustices in our society and my role as City Missioner has further reinforced this reality for me. There is growing inequity in New Zealand and we have endemic poverty that affects so many families and impacts on people's lives every day. There are many reasons for this and the solution to redressing some of this inequity and poverty are complex and require significant social change and conscious decisions on an individual, community and government level.
However, something I was not prepared for coming into my role as City Missioner is the intolerance and critical judgment placed on families and individuals living in poverty, by some members of our community. It is at odds with the caring, compassion and awareness displayed by so many others.
This letter has been prompted by something that happened on Mother's Day that I can't ignore without commenting on. This year the Auckland City Mission decided to celebrate the resourcefulness of the mothers and grandmothers who visit the mission, by highlighting an example of the sacrifices they make to feed their children. We could have focused on these grandmothers and mothers skipping meals themselves to feed their children and grandchildren, putting off visiting doctors when sick or not filling prescriptions to avoid the cost. But we chose to focus on something simpler - feminine hygiene products and the reality that mothers have to request these items from us because they need to spend all their funds on finding food for their children. This is a choice no mother should have to make.
A brave mother,
in support of this mission campaign, in the hope that personalising and humanising the story would help spread this important message. She spoke openly and readily about the reality of raising her family in poverty, raising awareness of this very important issue. Unfortunately, sharing her story led to the mother and her family being exposed to hundreds of very personal and cruel comments, on social media. People who had no understanding or knowledge of her felt that they were in a position to criticise her personally, her parenting, her children and her family size.
I was troubled immensely by what I read; it was at odds with what I know of the brave and resilient mothers and grandmothers we work with and also the kindness and generosity that are such a part of our community. There are so may injustices in our community that have to be redressed, so many factors that impact and keep families trapped in a cycle of poverty. Unconstructive and judgmental statements directed at individuals won't solve this they will just damage further the pride and resilience of already vulnerable and marginalised people.
Poverty has been described as "wicked" and "complex", which means there are multiple and often compounding causes. However, there are a group of people who maintain that poverty and consequences such as homelessness are due to personal irresponsibility, laziness and addictions. This approach attributes blame to individuals. The victim blaming attribution tends to reinforce stereotypes, stigmatises an already disenfranchised group and abrogates the community and State of responsibility for the provision of basic needs. It also minimises structural causes of poverty such as lack of care for our mentally ill, gentrification, increased household breakdown, shortage of low-cost housing, tightening of social safety net, debt and inadequacy of the minimum wage.
Martin Luther King once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter", the level of poverty in New Zealand is unacceptable and the City Mission will continue to run appeals that speak about this and we will continue to encourage brave and resilient people to share their important stories because it matters.
Auckland City Missioner