I've been working intensively this week to bring you stories from the corners of the Hawkesbury that I personally know intimately and can easily navigate; those quiet places and people whose kindness comes in industrial strength.
It takes a lot of personal investment to do this work, and it takes trust that flows both ways. The community owes their resident journalists absolutely nothing. You must be willing to stand and explain how it is that you empathise, or they might tell you exactly where you can shove your little fancy moleskin notepad... and rightfully so. (Not that I own any of those posh notepads. They're $20 each. Are you kidding? It's a notepad.)
In a world that has been incredibly unkind or snobbish towards these people, they understandably may feel suspicious. You have to explain what motivates you to tell their story, or they won't understand why you're pursuing them for it. In so many cases, people living in poverty are used in mainstream media as "poverty porn"; that is, the voyeuristic sort of journalism that is written by people who do not understand poverty but either (a) think they do, and/or (b) have been rushed off to write the piece by an editor who is more concerned with bottom lines than ethics.
It results in the sort of ghastly writing you see with titles like, "I lived on Newstart for a week", or photographs that scream "we want this interviewee to look like the stereotype you think he is!"
There are also implicit messages such as, "This single mother's rags-to-riches story means that you can now respect her as a human being because she is no longer on social security payments" (hint: she actually deserved respect as a human being when she was on Parenting Payment, too).
I'm sorry to say that most of the media representation I see in newspapers and on commercial television is actively, aggressively geared towards boxing the low-income community into the stereotyped image the financially-comfy set need them to be. Statistically, peoples' assumptions about unemployed people are being sadly enforced, with government officials claiming that they've created tens of thousands of jobs a month, when actually a national scheme that counts "placements" instead of secure work is how they're coming up with those not-quite-true figures. The illusion that jobs are "there for the taking" continues, and even politicians that some in the community feel are supposed to be in their corner forget the reality. A former Senator patted his party on the back recently for doing a good job on a campaign to reduce inequality (that in reality did not hit the mark at all), and anyone living with the daily reality of barriers to a dignified life - especially those living with domestic violence, disability and mental illness - will feel the sharp sting of the insult that comes with such a statement.
Most of the time, stats are the go-to for someone like myself, but in 2019's War on the Poor, storytelling is making liars of statistics when it comes to the real story of how Australians are faring out there. And the Hawkesbury is very much a "sample" of Australian life, with thousands of people in our neighbourhoods with a story to tell on trauma and on everyday discrimination wielded against them at Centrelink desks, in their desperate hunts for work and in their fight to survive even their domestic lives. Many living with barriers to employment can barely get to their own front door alive, let alone functional.
Many living with barriers to employment can barely get to their own front door alive, let alone functional.
I sat in a living room with two interviewees this week and divulged a snapshot of my own history; a history I only realise in recent years has informed me on poverty, trauma and social stigma in ways that no academic, political or community sector job possibly can.
Eighteen years ago, I was a single mother living in South Windsor. I drove an old rickety XD Falcon that needed the choke to be held out on a cold morning when it wouldn't start. I liked to read things I didn't understand, and work out how to interpret them as I breastfed my baby. I wrote letters to friends near and far. I liked to spend my last $5 on a punnet of violas, and grow them in my rented garden.
I did the groceries at 7am on a Tuesday morning, when nobody was in the supermarket except the same kind-faced woman who still works there to this day.
I learned how to get the shopping inside by myself, when the baby was hot, tired and screaming for a feed and a cuddle. There's nobody to call, so you find a way. Some days I didn't get to shower, because you can't abandon your baby alone on the bouncer to steal that time to even wash yourself. Some days, I sat and cried with her. Nobody heard us, but that's how it goes. Single mothering is the hardest work, the loneliest occupation and the most important one of all. You are it. You are the only person in this child's life who is charged with the responsibility of doing the job, doing it well... nay... doing it perfectly. So you do it perfectly, because there is no "I did my best" in that realm.
I chose to be with her, instead of putting her in daycare to chase a minimum-wage job, which, given my options at the time, was a choice I still stand by. She was the sort of baby who required it, and I was the sort of mother who could not consider any other life for her. I kept my house in pristine condition, and washed daily. I sterilised, I scrubbed, I played with her and cuddled her fulltime. My youthful hands became like the hands of an old woman overnight. I kept the cloth nappies coming through the wash but still had time to make the dinner and mop the floor. I took her to doctors, skin specialists, immunisations. I took her to social occasions I didn't want to take her to but felt obliged to attend because people don't understand how hard it is for a traumatised young single mum to do the same things they do without thinking. I taught myself to run a household on a Centrelink income. I fed my baby every ninety minutes for a year, around the clock. I virtually never slept. When she began to eat solids, I made all her food myself from fresh fruit and vegetables. I made bread, and I made frozen dinners. I taught her to speak and have good manners, and showed her music from around the world. I showed her different foods and we made potato stamp paintings and fingerpaintings and drew in the dirt and planted beans and made scarecrows. We went to playgroup, and pretty soon I ran my own groups to make sure nobody like me was left behind. In the meantime we dealt with threats from multiple directions. In 2003 I joined a working party to establish a dedicated secular DV shelter in the Hawkesbury (it still doesn't exist, by the way). I learned how to organise things that count. I bought the paper each week (as you did in those days) and scoured for jobs I could do.
Nothing. No jobs for me. No employers who get it. No economy who wants us.
I landscaped the garden for the landlord, who liked it so much that he asked me to move out, and moved into it himself. I learned how to negotiate for a rental property, for whitegoods, for anything. I went to the bargain shop to get my washing powder, because it was $4 cheaper per kilo. I baked things for people as gifts, because that's what I could afford to do, but still have a lovely gift for them. I grew vegetables and flowers as gifts, too.
Back then, if you were cluey enough and hardworking enough, you could survive.
Despite having worked hard during my pregnancy, I had only a small amount of savings. To this day, the time I was single, pregnant and working is the only time in my life that I have ever had savings. To this day, there is always some point in the fortnight that I own $0, with at least $150 of bills to pay. (I found the recent "dipping into savings" fortnight of news highly amusing.)
When I was pregnant, I worked as one of those concierges in the city who wears a suit but secretly is a trained and skilled security guard. I had done kung fu for a good few years and as a twenty year old I was getting to work in a corporate environment with posh people who always seemed so concerned with really trivial problems. They were fascinating creatures, gliding by my desk in their bespoke shoes and perfect coiffs. Such odd people, so consumed with money, the poor things. I liked working in a fishtank with such a fragile species.
The change came when I no longer wore a suit and no longer had an obviously "respectable" social status. Most people thought I was around sixteen years old, even though I was twenty-one. I learned that a single mother who is not only young but also a racial outlier is unwanted in the community.
Whether or not people meant to teach me that, that is what I learned.
When I pushed my baby in a pram through the shops, shopkeepers would eye me suspiciously to the point that I would get the hint and leave. Sometimes, a security guard would even materialise out of nowhere in the department store, because I had committed the crime of being young, poor, tired and pale, with pram and baby, and dressed in cheap clothing.
When I breastfed my baby in the food court after we'd done the groceries, older women would approach uninvited to tell me I was doing it wrong (I was a natural at breastfeeding and so was my baby), and older men would stare at me, either in some sort of sexually-charged excitement, or in disgust. I began to breastfeed my baby in the Richmond Marketplace "parents room", which at the time was a narrow, dingy room with a toilet in the corner and a plastic chair to sit on. It always smelled bad and was noisy. Compound that with strange white-person comments on escalators that began with, "What do you have in you? You've got a bit of something in you, I can tell!" and you can imagine how that affects someone after a few years. Strangely, very few people say that to me in my older age. Why is this?*
When my little girl started school, I went without my own chicken or steak in my meals to ensure she wore the very best shoes, the very best clothes. She had the Smash lunchboxes and Roxy hats the kids of well-off parents had, even if I walked around with old holey sneakers on and moth-eaten shirts. I was determined to ensure that no matter what I had to give up, she would have the best possible chance at fitting in.
But that doesn't save you at the school gate. The young single mum was always locked out of conversations about the "stress" of mortgages, kitchen renovation decisions and where to holiday next. The ten-minute conversations about frozen peas that seem to be so important to others; the concerns over incredibly trivial things that was fascinating to me in 2000 were no longer fascinating to me in 2006. It was irritating and boring, and I couldn't work out why. I didn't know I was different. If I had understood why other peoples' first-world problems bothered me so much back then, maybe I mightn't have struggled so much with depression and anxiety over my early adult life.
In 2019, I understand why poverty and the social issues surrounding it had such an impact on me, and I also know what to do about it.
Most people don't mean to socially ostracise the person in the room who lives in poverty.
And most financially-comfortable people - despite their best efforts - are never really sure that people who are unemployed in the long-term really don't want to be there. You can see it in the implicit messages behind how they phrase their sentences, or how they seem a little besmirked when referring to people whose families have been unemployed and living in the same nowhere-life for three generations.
Culturally, in Australia, we don't mention money. We don't talk about why the family down the road can't afford to come to the third birthday party in September or be a part of the conversations you're having after school drop-off. They can't relate to you, even if you're incredibly welcoming and kind. There are so many of those families that their dignified silences are now working aggressively against their capacity to seek help and find it. They need us to now dig in, change the way we've always had this conversation, and find community solutions to poverty that we've never considered before.
A beautiful friend of mine found out a couple of weeks ago that I lost all my (already-borderline charity hamper) food in a 24-hour blackout and walked me through a supermarket to get me a bag of things to take home. She showed extraordinary grace as we began to reach for different things; her the $6 yoghurt, me the $4 yoghurt. She suggested lamb chops, and without thinking, I laughed. After that, I got a tray of sausages, because that's what we eat when someone else is paying, which is most of the time. So I eat sausages. I get some $2 tomatoes instead of the $5 ones and cut the bad bits out to make sauce.
The irony is that I like to cook while listening to podcasts by rich people who fight hunger. I've been living like this for a long time. I am beginning to understand that maybe that massed Australian cultural error of establishing a "don't be a victim" or "don't complain" mentality is actually entrenching poverty further into the community.
Maybe, one day soon, we should all walk through a supermarket together.
*It's because they know it's inappropriate and that an older woman will tell them they're being inappropriate, but they think can get away with saying it to a younger woman who is less likely to realise she can just pick them up and toss them into the nearest bin.