The number of people living in or near poverty in Australia is increasing, how do the rest of us react when we come up against this in the people we know?
According to the OECD, 14.4 per cent of Australians live in poverty. It’s up around 2% from previous reports and higher than the OECD average of 11.3%. But these are just numbers and numbers don’t describe the full complexities of a situation.
So here’s some more numbers: it’s Sunday and I’ve just checked my wallet – there’s 87 dollars there. There’s 47 cents in my bank account. Rent’s due in 8 days, my child needs meals for the week ahead and I’m wondering which will be cut off first – the gas or the phone.
I chose to become poor, but didn’t realise how low it would take us. When the redundancies came, I put up my hand for a small payout and a chance to work from home as a writer. A chance to cast off the untold anxiety of dealing with hostile workplaces and despised tasks. Taking that opportunity to develop my writing into a fulltime career was a leap into the void, a chance to vanquish any remaining excuse to not write. We’re all told to follow our dream, right?
And as with many leaps, there is always a drop. I don’t earn anywhere near the same six figures I once did, the dependable, regular income I could divide and portion. Half of the time, we’ve been able to get through the months with food on the table, bills paid and space for treats with little fretting.
But the leap has since turned into a plummet. Those times when I scrabble deep into the couch or plunder money boxes stuffed from better times. The practiced nonchalance of the supermarket guy who tells me he’s happy to accept $25 worth of coin. The daughter who politely rejects a friend’s offer to buy her a drink because she worries she’ll have to pay them back.
Then there’s the infection I’ve learned to ignore because the nearest bulk billing place is suburbs away and I don’t have money to pay for medication anyway. The PTSD from an abusive relationship that keeps me at home because I can’t afford psych treatment, even with a mental health plan. The 20 kilos I lost because PTSD and my empty bank account combine to convince me it’s easier to eat small meals or just not eat at all. This is my experience of being poor, something I share with millions of other Australians.
When you’re broke, you learn to not mention it to most of your friends. Not only because you’d rather discuss a kaleidoscope of more interesting things, but because poverty is an unwelcome guest at any social occasion. It dulls the conversation or makes your friends uncomfortable, and they quickly stammer their list of financial obligations to head off any pleas for help you might make.
Because facing the poverty of friends reveals just how hostile we are towards the poor. That desperate search to find a reason for their poverty.
I’ve seen the thinning of lips when I paid $30 for a pair of shoes. Do I tell them about the 15kms walked every day, that my feet swell and hurt and form callous in the holes of the cheap shoes I bought last time? Or that $30 every three months is a better fix than the two years it would take to save up for one decent pair of shoes? Do I justify why a growing child needs clothes and how much they cost?
What about that new phone, will people realise it’s a free upgrade on my contract? That part of getting work is being always contactable, having a solid social media presence and being well informed about more than just one issue? Should I explain that this dress was bought years ago when I had money? Even now, I am compelled to tell you I don’t receive welfare, as though I’m trying to distance myself from the ‘others’ and thus avoid your disdain.
Even when my reflex is to offer a rationalisation of every purchase, the ability to scrimp will be scrutinised for “bad choices”. Keep to a $40 weekly food budget and people express concern that I’m either not feeding my child properly, or that I’m feeding her things that will give her cancer or put people out of work, such as the bread I buy for one dollar.
It’s a curious contradiction – not only must I actively scramble from poverty but I must still conform to the standards of conventional consumption while showing I am poor enough to be worthy of the empathy of others. Often being worthy of empathy is depending on listening to judgements and unsolicited advice.
Just get a job, any job. Problem solved. Here’s a job ad I found without knowing anything about your experience or abilities - go for it! If you are offered work where the pay is terrible, barely more than you have now after you take out the cost of working, you must stick with the job, even if it’s awful. Because having money is worth the cost of workplace harassment.
Can’t get work? Travel for work, then. Don’t talk about childcare costs or travel costs or how you won’t be able to pick your daughter up from school on time. Don’t you want this to be over?
Worried about high rent? It’s a no-brainer! Move! Move away from the school that cares so well for your child and the infrastructure that makes your lives liveable when you don’t drive. Don’t talk about the upfront expense of the first month’s rent and bond and removalists costs when you can barely scrape together each month’s rent now. Why won’t you help yourself? And worse, why do you keep explaining how all my simple solutions won’t address the myriad complexities that brought you here and keep you here?
This is advice I’ve received. And I see the glint that hardens when I explain they aren’t feasible recommendations. It’s just like the glint that appears when I justify my financial choices. They’re looking for something, anything, to explain why I am, why anyone is, poor.
More broadly applied, this reaction is central to why we are hostile towards the poor - because the act of finding fault with poor people, with proving that they could help themselves if they really wanted to, this absolves us of having to do anything ourselves.
We are programmed to judge harshly those in poverty because we live in a capitalist society, without fully understanding its complexity and our reactions. We respond to its urges but do not understand its mechanics. For many, being poor is a failure of a capitalist system. Not that the system has failed (because we don't often understand it) but that the poor have failed the system (and therefore society). So we judge them for failing.
But it also creates a conflict between two urges. One urge is the cultivated response to defend our wealth or possessions (and I would argue this is a cultivated response because it's backed up by media and consumerist messaging) - so, we feel we must guard our wealth and possessions from those who might take them from us.
The other urge is the equally cultivated (by concepts of community, from the spiritual messaging of churches, despite their practices) message to give and share.
These two urges are at odds with one another - share or defend wealth.
When we hear experiences of people living poor or in poverty, this conflict is activated and the result is to judge people for their actions (you are poor because of your own choices) because we don't want to be reminded that others have less than us and that they didn’t have any choice about that. And, for the most part, we don't want to acknowledge or help. By judging the poor so harshly and offering simple but unworkable solutions, we shore up our belief that they could help themselves if only they tried, and we absolve ourselves of any need to act.
As soon as we can make ourselves believe that people are poor because they are lazy, stupid and unwilling to work, we no longer have to think about why they are poor or how we should help them.
They all just blur into a number and it’s not our responsibility.