Nathan: Father of two and student – and how things can change.
I had a good job, a good income – 77k plus. I was debt free. I bought a house for 265k and was looking forward to paying it off, watching my kids grow and being involved in my community. The same week we settled on our house, I got made redundant. After 3 months and over 100 applications later (applied for anything in the end) I got a job on a dairy farm. My income dropped to $600 a week. The strain was great. I couldn’t pay my mortgage and my tenants were damaging my house. My marriage ended. I lost the house, lost money on the house, savings and everything except a few tools. I nearly committed suicide.
I continued applying for jobs. I got a new job (minimum wage) where I’ve been for 2.5 years despite applying for better jobs. I worked 80-85 hours a week doing hideous shift work hours that were different each week and even then, only banked about $890 a week after tax and Kiwisaver. I went from living in a warm and comfortable house to only being able to afford a tiny cold room for $75 a week. I repaid all my arrears and repaid my parents. Then after 2 years I became a solo dad and couldn’t find work to suit. This was so stressful. In the end, my boss created hours for me to do my work because they valued my ethics. But this is not a job that meets my needs. So I decided to gain a higher education by going to Uni to create a better life for myself and my kids.
Now, I rely heavily on government support and my student allowance. It feels that no matter how hard I work or how strict I am on sticking to my budget, which only allows $100 per week for food for 3 people, I cannot make progress out of my situation. I have to keep my house dry and warm so my kids don’t get sick. If they are sick I miss lectures or can’t work. I don’t have family in Palmy and it’s always a stressful challenge finding baby sitters. And yes, I sometimes have to not eat for a few days so I can send my kids to school with a brain nourishing lunch and ensure they have a nutritious evening meal. Recently, my car had a failed transmission and, you guessed it, I had no savings to pay. I need my vehicle to transport my children to school which is 10 km away. So my parents helped me a little initially, and then my car failed the warrant after the transmission was fixed. I had to repair my suspension, replace the entire exhaust system and have the bulk of the seals replaced to stop oil leaks. In total paid I’ve $3400 on my credit card to keep it going and don’t really have the means to service the debt. But what am I supposed to do? As I stand now, I put every spare dollar on debt, and at my current rate of repayment, I have 5 years left to be debt free (provided my car doesn’t break down again).
I don’t smoke, drink or spend any leisure time watching tv. I can’t afford to get take aways, go to movies or do anything that costs money. Can you imagine being stressed about your kid getting invited to a birthday party? There is an underlying expectation that you send your kid with a gift. A gift that has to be bought with your own grocery money. Or should I just embarrass my kid and send them with nothing and tell them to say “my dads too broke to buy you a gift”? Or, Maybe I should just lie and say I’m too busy to come – because I have no petrol to drive across town. Some would argue that this isn’t poverty, but in New Zealand, it’s relative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for everything I have and despite my challenges, I know there are others even worse off. This ain’t right.
Not having money is one thing. Not having time to spend with your kids, that’s the worst. Trading precious hours and experiences for minimum wage! That hurts. You can’t get that time back. It’s like grief. It is grief. I was tucking my 7-year-old son into bed tonight and he was all grizzly and said, “Dad can you play with us more?” I wanted to cry out of sheer frustration. “I want to buddy, but who’s gonna make your food?” Then for about the fourth time, he pleaded with me not to go to after school care. “I just want to come home after school”, he said. He told me, “it’s too loud there and the teachers just shout”. He’s right. It’s like a cattle yard in there. Kids everywhere and you almost need ear plugs. I had to explain to him the teachers are nice but it’s pretty stressful looking after that many kids that are over tired and hungry for parental attention. If I’m lucky I can give them an hour. We’ll play lego or they usually want to horsey ride on me, hit me with pillows, build huts or read stories. Just being able to sit and let them talk about their day is hard. You know, focused attention. Not driving or washing dishes or folding washing. It’s always hustle, hustle, hustle for too many parents.
As I’ve said, I have a 7-year-old son, but also an 8-year-old daughter. I study full time and the study is incredibly time consuming. This affects them enough as it is, but I also have to work every single weekend and have done for a very long time. I can’t remember ever taking any of my leave for the purpose of having a holiday, my leave has just been used to top up my pay. I also have to pay secondary income tax on my measly pay that I do get. I’m not working more than one job, but my student allowance is considered my income. Why does the government have to put secondary income tax on someone trying to accrue income equivalent to a normal work week anyway? Someone who has three jobs has three jobs for a reason, they are trying to get up to 40 hours but they get penalised for it. There should be no secondary income tax below a reasonable threshold. Every weekend I need to find babysitters. Sometimes the people want $50 or more for the duration of my shift, and I can’t pay that. That’s almost my nett pay! So I have to ask people from church or someone who is willing to have them and I try and rotate them around so I don’t call on them any more often than say, eight weeks.
We constantly have to go without. Mostly we just eat cheap chicken, rice and frozen veggies. The kids have adjusted to that and I’ll buy a tray of eggs a week and a couple of kilos of meat a week. Ya know, those $5 packs of chicken. I want them to have meat every day. For lunches, usually I just buy fruit and veg on sale. They’ll get apples, bananas and carrot sticks and a boiled egg and then they usually get 2 little biscuits in their lunch. I wouldn’t mind being able to go out and go to a cafe with a friend. I don’t buy coffees. When people invite me places I have to decline and I have to either deal with that, or the fact that they’re going to pay for me. I know it feels good to give to other people but it sucks to be that person who can never pay for themselves or give back. Earlier last year, my best mate got married and he wanted me to be his best man and I couldn’t afford to get there. He ended up paying for my petrol to drive up to Hamilton and back several times for the stag do and wedding so I could do the best man stuff. That was really embarrassing and his dad had to pay for everything at the stag do for me because I simply had nothing. You feel worthless.
The kids are going through shoes like a loaf of bread at the moment. Their shoes are literally falling apart on their feet. I now have to spent quite a lot of time looking through second hand shops so I can pick up some shoes for them – it’s often just the case of being in the right shop at the right time, and it takes a lot of extra time and petrol to do that. But I can’t just go and pay $30 for a new pair at the Warehouse. My daughter keeps asking for trousers at school because her legs are cold and she’s only got skorts. My son just wears shorts even when it’s freezing. They have to wear shorts in winter because I can’t afford to buy them trousers. My kids can’t even participate in sports because I can’t afford it and don’t have the weekends free to take them.
If the In-Work Tax Credit was extended to all families, the extra $72.50 for me it would mean that I don’t fall behind on payments. It would help me service my debt a little better. It would mean more of an opportunity to be a parent, and less time spent working. I need to work because the benefit is low, but it takes away from my kids and my studies. I study because one day I want to be a meaningful, skilled contributor to our community. I would like to see parents not being vilified for being a stay-at-home parent. You know, that disgusting ‘single, dole-bludging parent’ stigma. Women get it worse than guys. Dad’s are kind of glorified a bit by society because it’s unusual to be a solo dad, but it’s no easier financially. If I wasn’t studying or working I could easily fill up my days with parental duties and I could give back to the community by running my free fitness bootcamp in Takaro again. I could help my kids learn an instrument or could help them with their homework and I could have the time help my son with his reading because he’s so far behind. If I don’t work hard to help him, he’ll fall in the cracks too.
It’s so hard to get by each week. For many people they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. If we don’t speak up, nothing will change.