Something that stands out vividly in my memory is being maybe 10 years old and hanging out with a few mates around at Simon Hay’s place (ginger chap, knew everything about the British army circa WW2, which made him top dog in our circle). I can’t remember the circumstances, and I can feel the memory slipping into the ether as I finally share it, but what Simon insisted was that all of us, the entire bunch, were middle class. And everyone agreed.
Now, at the time that one slid right past me. For one thing, New Zealanders don’t drum the idea of class into each other. Social hierarchy here is flat compared to most countries, and we don’t make a great to-do about things like that. But over the years I came to realise exactly what a mark of friendship that statement was.
Thing is, growing up in small town New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s, before the 90s came and really levelled things (for a number of years everyone was poor or struggling), growing up social welfare was a slight, but not overwhelming stigma.
The main thing that annoyed me was that despite the fact that my family and I were being supported by a widow’s benefit, the “DPB” label was pretty firmly stuck to people of our station, and unless you’ve experienced that stigma, you’ll not know what I’m talking about. This is because while New Zealanders like to think that they don’t stigmatise, and will therefore deny someone like myself pointing out that they do, they do.
What this background endowed me was a realisation of exactly how much stuff you need to get by. Most people expand their consumption to meet their incomes, which is normal. But when you’re used to surviving on very little you pretty quickly realise that most people’s consumption is consumption for its own sake. People get used to changing their car every few years, and that becomes a benchmark of “normal”. Consequently, people will talk about their oh-so-important “quality of life”, but what they’re measuring that against is a floating point tied to nothing but their expectations of what their quality of life should be.
The outcome of my developing this point of view is that despite my income having increased somewhere into “middle class”, my expectations of what I actually need are very low. And, I’m firmly committed to not letting that expectation creep upwards if and when my income were to increase. First of all this is a good strategy to prevent my world falling to pieces if my situation should change. Nothing is certain in this world, after all. Second it prevents the seemingly prevalent anxiety of my income no longer supporting everything I might find myself taking for granted (like cheap food).
And so now, on the occasion of my birthday, I’ve realised that I’m am perhaps happier that any other person I know. It’s been a long, long road to where I am now.
I’m able to meet all my own needs and still put aside money to put my nieces through education (because only two things get people out of poverty, education or ambition, and preferably both).
I’m able to get good information to help my family when they need it (because lack of information is usually what keeps people in poverty, you’re too busy finding food for table to strategise).
I’m able to look back on the kindness of others that has sustained me, guided me, and helped me along the way, and for that I’m eternally grateful (because poverty is a prison, and without the doors being opened for you, education and ambition can be meaningless).
And I’m able to remember that first act of kindness so many years ago, see it for what it was, and wish that long-lost friend well.