I know I’m not the only one struggling to catch my breath in the week since Joe Hockey handed down the Abbott government’s first budget. I’m a single mother with a houseful of kids. After spending half a lifetime as a work-at home mum, I unexpectedly found myself single and ill-prepared for the job market. So I got a degree. Currently, I’m undertaking post-grad studies part time while I try and get a business off the ground. The business is not even close to feeding us yet but I’m hopeful. I’m getting some government support while I pull our lives together. That benefit shrunk considerably when the Labor government forced single parents on to Newstart, but we’ve been able to tighten our belts and survive so far.
So, anyway, even though my plan is that I’ll soon be earning and not relying on Newstart, right now, we’d be on the street without it. So memes that describe double standards like this one really get my goat.
What a despicable cheek it is to encourage people take notes about how poor people spend their money.
It reminds me that a pastor’s wife I once knew who told me she used to have to steel herself to face the inevitable criticism she’d receive from certain parishioners any time she turned up in church in a new dress.
And it reminded me of a time I laughed as I told a friend, the daughter of missionaries working in Albania, that I’d been visiting an older woman from the church and found her pegging used tea bags on the washing line. ‘For the missionaries,’ the woman had told me.
My missionary-kid friend didn’t laugh.
‘We got them,’ she said, ‘The dried out used tea bags. The sacks of 30-year-old clothing with the zips removed and the buttons cut off.’ She pursed her lips. ‘We grew up knowing that’s how much we mattered to our home church. Nice things weren’t for us. Not even zips were for us.’
To those cheapskates (whose behaviour was *not* representative of most of the Christians I knew when I was in the fold), missionaries were the Christian underclass. The only-ever-so-slightly-deserving-poor. Every gift to them was to be accounted for. Every indulgence resented.
I was shocked. Obviously, it’s wrong, plain and simple, to treat people that way. But I’m coming to realise that it’s more common than you might think.
Today, at my job seeker service appointment, the job placement staffer griped to me that ‘the people who come in there are so entitled’. And, she sneered, ‘they can all afford cigarettes. And iPods.’
So, let me just speak directly to you for a moment, job placement staffer lady. First of all, addiction is a separate issue. You don’t know anything about these kids except that they are unemployed and therefore almost certainly poor. You don’t know what their childhood was like, or what their home life is like now. You don’t know their mental health status. You don’t know what they choose to go without in order to buy a pouch of tobacco. So you should consider shutting TFU.
And you don’t know how long they saved to buy that iPod. Maybe they bought it back when they had a job. Or maybe Grandma gave it to them for Christmas. iPods are ubiquitous and they’re not all that expensive. Not having one feels like a significant social disadvantage to a young person. I’ve known more than one suicidal kid for whom their music was, some days, all that kept them from hurting themselves. In any case, you’ve no right to quibble about what people are lucky enough to own. You are at least 60 kilos overweight. Should we suggest you stop griping about your low wage, as you did today, because we judge that you misuse your earnings by spending it on junk food? No, of course not, because that would be invasive and cruel.
You told me the Abbott government’s budget was fair and would put a stop to a culture of entitlement. I asked you whether you thought Australia would be a better place if those ‘entitled’ kids had less, or even no, money at their disposal. Whether you’d feel safer walking the street where the hungry and desperate lay in wait. I asked if you were OK with those kids selling drugs outside my kids’ schools to earn pocket money. Or breaking into your house and taking *your* iPod. I pointed out that in countries where welfare is particularly stigmatised and meagre it has the effect of breaking down people’s sense of belonging to the community. It reduces people’s inclination to join or rejoin the economy. It contributes to lowering health outcomes, and increasing mental health issues, homelessness, crime and incarceration rates…all of which are expensive to the community. I asked if government ‘savings’ looked so much like savings when you considered those long-term costs.
I told you that a lot of the single parents I knew were struggling to sleep, struggling even to concentrate on the work at hand. I mentioned that I’d seen this posted on a single parents’ group on Facebook last night.
You told me that people need to just get a grip and not be irrationally afraid about the budget. That we just need to put things in perspective, stop over-thinking and just try harder to find work soon. I reminded you that everyone who walks through your door has been a little bit damaged by life. That we are struggling in one way or another. That when we hear from the government that our Plan B, C or D safety net is under threat, that we might genuinely face homelessness with our kids some time in the future, it makes us feel afraid. I told you that seemed a perfectly normal response to me.
I told you that you and workers like you are in a privileged position. That you get to act as a frame to support people who need your services while we learn to stand. That you need to build relationships with us, respecting us as equals, then help us each reach for our potential, call us to high standards, encourage us to take risks, and be there to support us when we fail. I told you that if we suspect, even for a moment that you are judging us, you lose any power you had to influence us. I reminded you that some of us can’t survive another setback like that.
I also told you that I thought it was entirely inappropriate for your receptionist to deny that you have a toilet on the premises and send a young mother with a desperately hopping toddler to a public toilet about 10 minutes walk away. You told me that a couple of times someone had left needles in your toilet cubicle so your office had banned clients from using it. ‘A few spoiled it for the many,’ you said.
I said I would never treat a toddler like that.
I guess you would.
You know what? I’m betting Prime Minister Abbott would too. I’m betting he’d smirk as he sent them on their way. You know how I know?