How one woman’s story of poverty evoked compassion at a literary festival  

I was speaking a little while ago at a literary festival, in a panel session on poverty and inequality with Canterbury University’s Bronwyn Hayward and broadcaster Wallace Chapman, when an audience member got up and spoke, with great emotion, about the struggle that she and her husband faced in making ends meet on his salary stacking shelves at a local supermarket. Like many others in this situation, she had to deal with the extreme distress created by ever-increasing bills and inadequate income, a situation which often threatened to overwhelm her.

Sometime later, I received this e-mail:


Dear Max, Bronwyn and Wallace,

Thank you for your enlightening panel talk on equality and poverty. It has profoundly adjusted my view of poverty within New Zealand.

If you remember during the questions the young women who burst into tears, I am that woman.

I wanted to let you know that, after it ended, many women came over to me with so much compassion in their hearts. Many of those women pushed money into my hands insistent that I accept it. I came away from that talk $165 richer.

But more than that, I had the realisation that there are people that have money that they personally don’t even need; that while I have lived in poverty my whole life, this is not how the majority of people live.

As a writer, this realisation has sparked a desire in me to write a book about this phenomenon. This barrier in our existence needs to come down, so those who struggle realise there’s a world of plenty all around us, and those that do not struggle, financially, can comprehend what it’s like to live without any assets.

Thank you all for this inspiration.

Of course, individual instances of generosity like this are not going to solve the systemic issues that leave one fifth of the population in poverty. But generosity and compassion of this kind have to be at the heart of any response to this widescale problem.

The author of the letter is also quite right to suggest that many people struggle to realise what it is like to live in poverty, and that one of the most crucial tasks of the years ahead is to somehow get through to those who currently refuse to see the reality around them.