We're hammered about our struggling underclass, the need for a "living wage", the financially pressed middle-class and the widening gap between the affluent and the impoverished. I don't argue any of that's untrue. But here's the puzzle. Wellington's CBD has literally hundreds of cafes, restaurants, coffee houses, sushi bars, sandwich shops etc, packed daily with moderate-income office workers, from 11.30am to 3pm. So, too, in Auckland and Dunedin but it doesn't stop there.
For whether Feilding, Paeroa, Dannevirke, Cambridge, Nelson, Timaru, it matters not, our small towns are also filled with cafes and coffee houses, all awash with lunchtime customers. So it appears that large numbers of our struggling people are spending up to $150 each working week, buying their lunch. If life's so difficult, why on earth are they not making sandwiches each morning, as everyone did a generation back? Also, most secondary schools have tuck shops which wouldn't exist if they weren't patronised. If their parents are so hard-pressed, why are they not cutting lunches?
So, too, with tradespeople whom I question and who all admit buying lunch each day. When I suggest they'd save a great deal by bringing sandwiches they're bemused. Likewise with low-wage factory workers. Industrial zones are dotted with lunch bars.
My company owns a 75-building complex in a Sydney industrial area. Centrepiece is an enormous cafe with eight counter-serving staff and a large outdoor seating deck crowded with low-wage storemen, forklift drivers and the like, yet the same working-class hardship clamour goes on over there. A decade back in one Hutt Valley industrial area, a food bar owner got the drop on his rivals by the progressive idea of employing busty young topless girls, this a reflection of the number of competing outlets.
On Lambton Quay or Queen St are numerous office workers bearing $5 mugs of coffee, despite most offices providing free coffee. Recently I intervened to stop my Wellington office spoiling one of our building's foyers with a coffee stall. This a proposal from an operator with two existing city outlets. That he offered a $30,000-a-year rental tells how freely our supposedly impoverished office workers are spending on takeaway coffee.
Discussing this with my managers, they argued that the horror of open space offices containing hundreds of tightly packed computer-gazing workers necessitated the need to escape at every opportunity. I accept that but they can still cut their lunches and there's lots of city parks to escape to. It's their money, but don't tell me about hardship in making ends meet or saving for a house deposit when I witness such widespread indulgence.
When I was young, every household in state house Lower Hutt had vegetable gardens and quite a number had chicken-runs. It left its mark, thus even today my household grows most of our vegetables and fruit and has chickens, albeit I have the indulgence of two gardeners. Nevertheless, I'm told that household vegetable gardens are now uncommon.
Most mornings I have crisp stewed pears with muesli, these provided free from nature and preserved from my garden. Pear trees are cheap, hardy and prolific. The crop from one would cover most families for a year. In fact, I have hundreds of fruit trees but cannot find takers for free fruit, so this year I bought a juicer, had the lot put through and frozen and now drink our home-grown fruit juice year round.
Given all of this, I wonder how much the alleged hardship sufferers are doing to help themselves, particularly the lowest-income category for whose children we must now provide breakfast. It's a certainty we will soon hear of the need to provide them lunch and, like it or not, Al Nisbet's cartoon was spot on. Even on the minimum wage and after rent, electricity etc, no one cannot afford to feed their children and let's not have a barrage of "mocking from on high" abuse. These people live in luxury compared with my childhood, but we never went without food.
There are numerous state agencies, churches, budget advisers and other well-meaning groups aiding our poorest citizens but unwittingly creating a dependent mentality. Not long before he died, I came across Sir Howard Morrison who told me he had been visiting Cabinet ministers to persuade them to fund doctors' home visits to his region's Maori patients.
"Are you saying they're too bloody lazy to go to the doctor like everyone else?" I asked. "Yes," Howard conceded sadly, "that's the reality." Howard meant well but like so many, did harm in trying to help those who won't help themselves.
Perhaps the old saw of better to teach a man to fish than give him one applies. Banging a pear tree or two in each backyard and teaching vegetable growing could be a first step towards promoting an obviously absent self-reliance.
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