I recently attended two separate events that had me confronting my own experience of living in poverty in Australia. I was academically aware that I lived well below the recognised poverty line in this country. “In dollar figures, this poverty line works out to $433 a week for a single adult living alone; or $909 a week for a couple with 2 children.” Receiving Newstart benefits puts me in the lowest few percent of Australians. Yet I didn’t feel that I was at the bottom. Why was that, when I was struggling to pay rent and bills and put food on the table?
At the recent Uniting Women’s Conference held in Brisbane, I was privileged to be a part of an elective workshop on engaging with people on the margins. Capably led by Bec Reidy and Robyn Hardge-Scott, it focused on their experience of living and working in Bidwell, a poverty postcode in Western Sydney. The two of them were able to put some words around my experience to help make sense of it.
We started with a privilege walk. Here, Bec would read out a number of statements about privilege and we would take steps from the starting point in the middle of the room depending on whether they were positive or negative. “If you had more than 50 books in your house when you were a child, take a step forward.”
With that as the starting question I figured I would be at the front of this line of women. I had a great, loving, middle class upbringing with two tertiary educated parents. I did well at school and had multiple degrees from Australian Universities. I was white. I would have to be one of the most privileged women at the conference. “If you are not a white male, take a step back.”
By the end of the activity, I found myself at the back of the group, sharing the space with an Indigenous woman from the Northern Territory, who explained English was not her first language, and a teenager from Bidwell.
The three of us were asked to comment on this. I stated that I was quite surprised to be in this position. My early life was a picture of privilege. But the questions in this activity also focused on adult experiences. The situations that I had found myself in as an adult had put me further behind economically. A series of very low paying or sacrificial wage type ministry positions with no security and sometimes no superannuation. A number of injuries that resulted in years of hospital visits and rehabilitation. An assault. Employment applications that were rejected surprisingly because I was overqualified. Mine was a very different story to these two amazing women sharing this space at the back of the line.
When we sat down, Bec explained why. I didn’t live in absolute poverty where people live on a dollar a day and have a high risk of starving to death. I lived in relative poverty. I am poor in comparison to the rest of Australia (though far wealthier than those in absolute poverty). The highest 20 percent of Australians live in a household with five times as much income as the lowest 20 percent. People in the highest one percent live in households with an average weekly income ($11,682) that is 26 times the income of a person in the lowest 5 percent ($436). This means the highest one percent earns as much in a fortnight as the lowest five percent receives in a year.
Nor did I live in generational poverty, where multiple generations are reliant on welfare or minimum wages. I lived in situational poverty. Circumstances may have led me to a position where I was living below the poverty line, but I had a network of support that meant I could survive. I had a mum who helped with rent and bills if I couldn’t pay. I had friends who would pop $20 in my handbag to help me out. One ex flatmate paid for my flights and accommodation so I could actually attend an interview in another state. A church lady would drive me to a state government initiative so I could get free fruit, vegetables and bread. My local church paid my ticket to get to this very conference. What I had was social capital, one of the most important aspects of helping individuals and families get out of poverty.
One of the things that this social capital network encouraged me to do was to continue pursuing things that I enjoyed, in the midst of the poverty struggle. I recognise now the wisdom of their advice as these activities allowed me to have positive, meaningful and healing self-expression. Two things that I love are rock climbing and being creative. A group of climbers enabled me to continue pushing the vertical world, despite injuries that meant being slow and well below their level. My creative pursuits, mostly focused around contemporary jewellery and paper art, led me to my second experience of confronting my own poverty.
I attended a workshop on Class and Art, facilitated by Llewllyn Millhouse. The series of activities was his contribution to a group exhibition called Class Act. While designed to be a highly self-reflective event, it nevertheless was educational through the sharing of experiences. The way we introduced ourselves to the group was to share the first time we remember not getting something because of money. We could talk to a chosen picture card about how it spoke into our experience of class. I chose a house as being something that I was now locked out of owning, due to being in the ‘renter’ class (those who could never save for a home) as opposed to the ‘owner’ (those who had wealth in their own house) or ‘developer’ class (those who made their wealth taking money from the renters).
The most confronting was an activity called Concentric Circles. Participants sat in two circles, one inside the other, facing each another. We then had to talk for two minutes each on a given topic. The inside circle would move one seat along and we’d talk on a new topic. When asked to speak on “I feel low class when…” I was surprised at how easily I could rattle off experiences. The hardest one to express was being invited to a wonderful friend’s secret baby shower. We would be going to a café and were asked to contribute $50 for food and $20 for a group present. I was excited to be invited and then devastated to realise that I would not be able to save $70 for about two and a half months after the event. I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it.
In the land of the lucky country, where a fair go is supposedly part of the national identity, why is poverty still a reality? Why is there such inequality? These questions will be explored in part two of this series.
Dr Katherine Grocott