Living on little, Part 1: How come?

There are many different people who find they have to live on very little. People who are retired and don’t have an independent income, people who are sick or disabled and cannot work, those who cannot find work, people who work in low paid jobs, people who have a lot of debt.

Of those, only the retired have an income that is theoretically tied to the cost of living and is sufficient (again, theoretically) to live on.

How much is enough is a question, and one that has led to the concept of the minimum living wage. This is much higher than the current legal minimum wage. Many employed people get less than a ‘minimum living wage’.

For those who cannot find work the level is deliberately set by the government to be insufficient to live on. They believe this provides a necessary incentive to work. People who are sick or disabled get virtually the same, insufficient amount, but they can apply for extra assistance to help with their sickness or debility — this helps with their extra expenses, but it does not address sufficiency for their general living expenses.

What counts as the basics?

You need a roof over your head. You need to keep warm. You need food. You need clothing. You need transport. You might think the doctor, prescriptions, dentists, spectacles are basic essentials but if you are living on little these are extras you fit in, if and when you can, or when desperation or emergency forces them to the fore.

Transport is a work day essential if you are working, a weekly essential to get to the shops for food if nothing else. Even walking is not free: if you walk, your wear out your shoes.

A roof over your head means board for some, rent for others, rates, insurance and house maintenance for the lucky mortgage free, add on the mortgage for those who are not. There is a small amount of extra allowance you can get if these costs are high. Otaki is an area of low cost housing relative to NZ, so the amount of help is small.

Keeping warm means electricity or firewood (remember, walking costs shoes). Otaki lost its free firewood source when the KCDC ditched the wood pile at the dump.  Otaki has a short winter, and mild by New Zealand standards, so we are luckier than others, but you can’t get through a winter without firewood or extra electricity.

Our three opportunity shops provide second-hand clothing, this is a real bonus as long as you are not too proud. Or the wrong size. There’s not a lot of room for pride when you are living on little.

So put your mind around this. You have a roof over your head, your can keep warm enough not to get sick. You have food so you are not hungry or not hungry often, or only when you need to see a doctor or pick up a prescription. You have second hand clothes and shoes and you can walk to the shop. Already you are likely to be over budget if you are living on little. Have a think about the other things you do in life, the things that are not basic, that are not about survival, but about quality, enjoyment, participating with others in the community like an ordinary person. Have a think about what it would be like to miss out on these things.

Next month we will look at how people actually get on with life in these circumstances.

Miriam Richardson