Come back John A. Lee, your country needs you.

We have been raising children for nearly twelve years on one income and things have never been harder for us than they are now.  I’m trying to work out how this can possibly be and I’m coming up with not much.

This situation is temporary for us because now that the youngest is three and gets subsidised childcare I can begin working more regularly again.  A permanent part-time job would be lovely but until one knocks on my door I’ve been doing day-to-day relieving.  It has its problems – I’ve had to renew my teaching licence which cost $220 (typing my name into their computer must be very hard work; not only it is ridiculously expensive but it also takes 4-6 weeks) and I have to deal with Novopay who have a particular prejudice against people who have worked in private schools.  I have, and it’s cost me five years’ worth of salary advancement.  I’m not exaggerating, although I wish I was.  But it’s good money and it fits in nicely with our school and kindy schedule.

I have this option to provide light at the end of the tunnel for us because I have a nice middle-class education and professional qualifications, but I have often had cause to think recently, what on earth do other people do?  Because here’s the thing I’ve discovered: being poor is expensive.  I don’t mean comparatively or proportionately.  I mean absolutely.

John A. Lee, champion of the poor until it got a bit obsessive and even the other socialists were over it.

John A. Lee, champion of the poor until it got a bit obsessive and even the other socialists were over it.

Everything costs more if you can’t pay for what you need when you need it.  We have always paid for things like insurance annually and I’ve never given it a thought.  It’s less hassle to pay once a year so that’s what I’ve done.  Now we can’t and do you know what?  They charge us more for not being able to.  They claim that we’re borrowing from them by taking longer to pay and so they deserve extra from us.  Josh’s car died a while back and because we live forty kilometres from his job he didn’t have much choice but to buy another one.  Amy, who’s on a pre-adolescent ‘passionately embracing causes’ kick, pointed out that he really should be riding his bike, but so far she’s the only one who thinks that’s a good idea.  So he bought a car and for the first time ever we’ve had to deal with a car finance company and they charge like wounded bulls.  It’s not a new car and it has nothing extra to his needs and without it he can’t earn the money that keeps us from a mortgagee sale but because we can’t buy it in one go it costs so much more.  I get that they’re running a business and not a charity, I do.  It’s all about profit and I don’t expect anything different.  It’s just that we’ve never had to deal with it before.

And then there’s the IRD.

When Helen Clark’s Labour government was re-elected in 2005 things really turned around for us.  Before that it wasn’t as difficult as it is now but it wasn’t easy, either.  She gave us three things that made a real, material difference: the 20 hours’ free ECE (not that any of my kids have ever received a single hour which has actually been  free, but it’s certainly been a lot cheaper), the interest rebate on student loans, and Working for Families.  Despite having, by their standards, many children we never got much but it was enough to help, for sure.  Except for that time when I got part-time work and told them to stop paying WFF and they didn’t and we didn’t notice because it was a small amount going into an account we never used and then we had to pay it all back by which time it didn’t seem like such a little amount any more.  Except for that.

Kindy: still not free but they do some cool stuff.

Kindy: still not free but they do some cool stuff.


And except for this, which is the one that’s actually relevant here.  Just before the end of the 2013 tax year Josh was, suddenly and out of the blue, made redundant.  Fortunately  because he’d worked there for so long he was entitled to redundancy pay.  Unfortunately because it happened to fall into the end of one tax year and not the start of the next it meant that we had been overpaid WFF by thousands of dollars and they wanted it back.  So now we are paying it off each fortnight over two years, the maximum timeframe you’re allowed, and even then the payments are hard.  Here’s the thing, though – we are paying interest of over a dollar a day.  Over two years that’s getting up towards a whole nother thousand dollars, just because we don’t have the readies to hand.  And here’s the other thing – Josh got a new job, but we would still be in exactly the same boat, having to pay the original bill plus an extra dollar a day, even if he hadn’t and this must happen to people all the time.

I don’t have any suggestions about how this could be made more fair – in fact, I’m not even saying that it’s not.  We weren’t entitled to the money and it was just bad timing.  But we have ended up with a huge bill and a huge interest component because he lost his job.  It’s hard, is all I’m saying.  Hard.  In our case I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to pay it off before the two years are up because the chance of my being able to get a job in that time is high and once that happens it’ll be all new boats and trips to Fiji.  But there are other people who don’t have that choice.  If I still had babies we would now be faced with having to make the tough decision to put very small children in daycare, which would suck up a huge proportion of my wages, so that I could work because we’d be in such desperate need of whatever was left.  We have never had to do that but I can certainly see why others do.  If I hadn’t had the privilege of a tertiary education I couldn’t get a job that would even cover the daycare and we’d be stuck going backwards forever.

One thing that is truly free: doctor's visits for three-year-olds.  Just in case she wasn't the first kid who thought of licking it.

One thing that is truly free: doctor’s visits for three-year-olds. Good to know in case she wasn’t the first kid who thought of licking it.

Let me be very clear here.  We still have a very privileged lifestyle.  We both have high earning capacity and have up until now had the option of only one of us using it .  We have a house and insulation which puts us above far too many other people.  Our children need for nothing and although they may want for many things we wouldn’t be indulging them even if we could.  We have a way out of this situation and although currently we’re finding the whole ballgame very stressful that also puts us above many others.  I am very lucky and I know it.  My point is that I’ve seriously been having my eyes opened to the extra obstacles that many people must face in a permanent way because they do not have disposable income and I’m wondering, if it’s this hard for us, what’s it like for them?

Josh earns a good salary and we are very, very frugal.  We produce a fair bit of our own food and all the kids’ clothes come from the informal local recycling system.  We buy absolutely nothing non-essential.  For the first time ever earlier this year I had to go through our outgoings and get rid of everything that’s not keeping us alive.  Starving children, guide-dog puppies, cancer researchers and endangered dolphins: you’re on your own, baby.  Health-insurance?  For wimps.  So why?  Why is this happening?

No point in doing your cute sad puppy-eyes at me, buster.  I have a lot of experience in ignoring cute sad puppy-eye requests.

No point in doing your cute sad puppy-eyes at me, buster. I have a lot of experience in ignoring cute sad puppy-eye requests.

I think the problem is that we fall into the middle.  If Josh earned less we would be eligible for a community services card, much higher Working for Families payments (maybe enough to cancel out the debt, wouldn’t that be nice?), a lower tax bracket and all sorts of other goodies.  It really makes me wonder if we wouldn’t be better off, to be honest.  We have (jokingly, but only just) discussed the idea of asking his boss for a pay cut.  We have four children and a mortgage by our own choice and we do not expect anyone else to fund them for us, but we did expect that a salary deemed too high for any of these extras should at least be able to cover the necessities and can’t quite work out why it doesn’t.  If he earned more or if I worked too we wouldn’t lose any income-related subsidies or benefits because we don’t get any so we’d also be better off.  We have spent all these years doing what we feel is best for our children, and therefore for our contribution to society at large as they later enter it, by having one parent at home with them and the other out working full-time.  We have never taken anything that we couldn’t earn for ourselves.  So why does it feel like we’re being punished for doing the right thing?


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2 Responses to Come back John A. Lee, your country needs you.

  1. Bronnie says:

    good on you Mel – I see families struggle who earn too much to qualify for Winz subsidies. I love it that kids’ health care is now free and I’ve never heard a political reporter say a budget was great before. Anyway you’ll be rolling in it sooner than you think xx

    • Melanie says:

      Yes the extended free health care will be great. When Amy was a baby in Ireland I had to pay for every visit and it wasn’t cheap, I think it was €20. You could keep the receipts and claim it back at the end of the tax year (if you paid tax I suppose) but I remember thinking it must be expensive enough that babies wouldn’t always get the care they needed quickly. So we’re doing some things right here.

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