Could You Survive on the Breadline?

Could You Survive on the Breadline?

Content Warning: This article contains reference to assault, domestic violence and rape.

Could You Survive on the Breadline is a three part SBS documentary. It follows three adults, a left-leaning politician, a right-wing commentator, and a Masterchef winner, as they experience what it is like for many Australians to be living on Government support.

Over the course of the documentary, the three experience what it is like to survive on the same income as those on either the Disability Support Pension or the Newstart Allowance, care for families on the Single Parent Allowance or care for a sick family member on the Carer’s Allowance and try to find work in the ‘gig’ economy where minimum wages may not exist, few job opportunities exist and many businesses have had to reduce staff or close completely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The documentary highlights the very precarious state that government support recipients are in. Only one of the people visited said that they could have a decent life. This was conditional on not having any addictions that would use up money, would need to have government housing and you would likely be reliant on some kind of charity for food. Caring for someone who was chronically ill at home was next to impossible. This came at the cost of the carer’s health and was only possible due to the support of church charities who supplied free food. One teenage child, despite having dreams of a career, could see no future because her single mum could never afford University fees. Being trapped in the system was an all-too-common reality.

Government housing was not always safe or secure with all tenants reporting horrible conditions including mould so bad it was health debilitating, cockroach and rat infestations despite thorough cleaning, almost daily Police call outs for domestic violence and multiple experiences of rape and assault inside apartment blocks by other tenants.

All government support recipients, bar one, implied that they struggled to survive and the constant stress about finances and budgeting left them little mental capacity for anything else. Yet, they have to keep going, often for the sake of others.

The documentary raises many questions, including “is it their own fault that they require government assistance”? The answer is “no” for all those included in the three episodes. They were born with debilitating disabilities, were the victims of such violent assaults that left them with severe mental and physical disabilities, or lost jobs and businesses due to things like Covid-19.

The reality is that the “system” far too often keeps people requiring welfare, and thus, in poverty. What is this “system”? Economic journalist George Monbiot gives a brief introduction to neoliberalism in his article Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems. At its most basic, neoliberalism is defined as a political approach that favours free-market capitalism, deregulation, and reduction in government spending. What has resulted, however, is the increasing divide between rich and poor, extreme wealth in the hands of the few and the poor being blamed and even punished for their circumstances.

Scholar and author Susan George critiques neoliberalism in her 1999 speech A Short History of Neo-liberalism:

“…neo-liberalism has become the major world religion with its dogmatic doctrine, its priesthood, its law-giving institutions and, perhaps most importantly of all, its hell for heathens and sinner who dare to contest the revealed truth…For the neo-liberal, the market is so wise and so good that like God, the Invisible Hand can bring good out of apparent evil…People are unequal by nature, but this is good because the contributions of the well-born, the best-educated, the toughest, will eventually benefit everyone. Nothing in particular is owed to the weak, the poorly educated: what happens to them is their own fault, never the fault of society.”

Is this system one that God would approve of? In Leviticus 19:9-18 there are instructions on how to treat others with special reference to the poor. These include not stealing from others, dealing fairly with neighbours, and acting with justice. One of the most striking instructions though is in relation to work and food. The Israelites were instructed to always leave the edges of fields and vineyards unharvested. This was specifically so the poor could have food. It is important to note that this gave the poor dignity, as they were engaged in the same work as all the others in the field. It also meant that they were able to eat the same food as others. This levelling of the field is in stark contrast to the realities of current neoliberalism practice.

Could Christianity offer an alternative to neoliberalism that offers fairness and justice for all, a more equal distribution of wealth and dignity for humanity?

The documentary is available now on SBS On Demand.

Dr Katherine Grocott

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