Gomeroi. This is MY truth.

On Poor versus Poverty

People treat you differently when you’re more than poor. I have been poor all of my life, but its not until the past year that I have felt more than poor. For the first time in my life, I understand what poverty is, not poorness, but poverty. And although my life has been lived mostly on the margins, I now live outside the margin and the only thing keeping me from homelessness is the house I rent that is a contributing factor to my headlong dive into poverty.

When you speak to people from companies on the phone and they realise your calling because you cannot pay, need more time, can’t just hand over your credit card details and sort the matter out, their tone changes, becomes a little more frosty, you are asked curtly to please hold while you are transferred to the – even icier tone – credit department. Your friends tones become hushed when speaking of outings. Your kids stop having all their friends over. It happens over time but it happens.

I left a position over reasons at the time that felt empowering. I never thought in a million years I would not be able to get another job. I am experienced, hard working and qualified for many roles. In the 15 years to the minute I left my job, I had been out of work but had always been able to find another position within a few months. But not this time. I have become persona non grata in my very small community. I am an Indigenous woman who works in Indigenous fields that are managed by white people.

My last role required a lot of community engagement, nationally. To cut a very long and complicated story as short as possible, we were woefully under resourced, inadequate conditions were contributing to the deterioration of important materials and my pleas to management were ignored. My decision to be more proactive in addressing these issues was met with disapproval and subsequently relations became strained to say the least. I am blunt and don’t believe in sugar coating problems and took all my concerns directly to management, the dance that ensued is one many Aboriginal people are familiar with. It led to me resigning and it seems, has led me to permanent unemployment.

For a few months I held it together admirably, Foxtel went, the gym membership, the mowing company (now we borrow a mower and do it) good cuts of meat went, no more rocklmelon or watermelon, certain fruits and vegetables (wow, expensive) along with most other groceries that were priced over three dollars. Everything but the bare and utter basics. Then disaster struck. Julia Gillard removed me, along with around 80,000 other people onto Newstart. I thought we were poor before. Silly me, that was luxury. On Newstart all cuts of meat are gone except cheap fatty mince and ditto sausages. We exist on those, potatoes, pumpkin, cheap cereal and milk. 2 minute noodles reign supreme in this house.

The kids Sports club memberships are no longer in reach, along with shoes and clothes. It takes around 6 weeks to pay off decent shoes, if the cheap pairs are bought, they last around 6 weeks on teenage boy feet. Both of my children will now walk around with holes in their shoes until the next pair can be paid off in lieu of buying cheap shoes that blister and pinch. Now that the schoolkid bonus will no longer be around, I am walking around with my stomach clenched and my hands are white knuckled. I thank my lucky stars that I can buy school uniforms on a payment plan. This is yr 12 for my eldest. I don’t want him to worry about our situation; I want him to concentrate solely on his studies. But my smiles of reassurance are wearing thin and I’ve noticed he’s long stopped asking me for ten bucks when he goes and hangs out with his friends.

I have a payment agreement with the electricity company called a ‘hardship plan’. When I call the energy company I ask for the hardship team. I must never not be reminded of my poorness it seems. I had a payment plan with an internet and phone company, I skipped some payments before Christmas, I did the same to my electricity company. The electricity company understood. The internet company did not.

The mental stress and anguish I feel on any given day has now doubled. There is no relief from the inside of my head. No outings to dinner, no day trips to the movies, no relaxing shopping trips. Just an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that things may never change, no matter how hard I try to keep it together there is no relief from this, this grinding and relentless lack of finances, my every waking moment is filled with constant and utter dread about what my family may have to go without next.

I now fully understand every single story I have ever read and heard about people and families that are homeless and exactly how it happens. I now understand the stories about people eating catfood, living in tents, homeless shelters and refuges. I thought I understood, but not really. I had no idea about the loss of pride and dignity. The inability to look lifelong friends in the eye after borrowing yet another twenty dollars. The toll it exacts on everything you always thought you would never do. I had no idea about the shame.

I live in a private rental house. The rent alone takes three quarters of my payments. I am on the public housing list, but it may take years. I live in a three bedroom house in a bad neighbourhood a long way from amenities that is falling apart. It’s two hundred and seventy dollars per week. With the kids school year approaching, and without the safety net of the schoolkid bonus, homelessness is looking more and more likely. I have picked up the phone to call the womens refuge 3 times today. Each time I have started to shake uncontrollably. I know I have to make the call, I can no longer afford this rent. My ability to put three meals per day on the table for my kids is becoming more and more precarious. I cannot afford to skip another long ago cancelled credit card payment, I am already on the lowest possible repayment plan they have. This is the price I am paying for attempting to give my children one gift each this Christmas. In hindsight, a mistake.

I used to check along with the local online rag daily to look for a smaller cheaper place, and once almost succeeded, my application landed mere seconds after the first. Gone are the days where I could agononise over selection criteria in the privacy of my home, now I do it in front of an audience of people waiting for their turn to agonise. I also pitched stories to get a few extra dollars here and there. All of this online. But no longer. I must walk to my job network company every morning, which has one computer with one hour slots. One day I might get lucky and get 2 hours. One day it wont be 38 degrees when I leave the house. One day I might get a job. One day I wont be so poor.

I have a hole in the lining of my stomach and my blood pressure is too high. I sometimes get headaches so bad that my vision doubles. The health effects of being poor are beginning to surface. I’m sure a google search would unearth a study that shows my health problems are par for the course of people with money problems. Malnutrition, heart and skin problems are no doubt just around the corner.

I tentatively made plans for this year. Plans that are now scuttled and turned to dust. There is one thing I never read about being poor that happens. The loss of hope and sense of desperation that comes with the first sleepless night on an empty stomach, and never leaves. The minute I make that phone call to the refuge is the minute I cross from more than poor to poverty.


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22 thoughts on “On Poor versus Poverty

  1. I am very sorry to read of your plight and wish you (and your kids well). Hope 2014 is a turnaround year for you. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth Marr on said:

    To change your payment to NewStart was a decision that many Labor people disagreed with. That one backward move has really spoiled so many other good initiatives & we have to wonder what possessed Labor, did they think the Conservative voter would switch to them? People who applaud adding to disadvantage are never going to vote Labor. I have never been in your shoes, I haven’t come close to what you are experiencing, but your writing is giving me an insight into what you & your children are enduring & I am in awe of your practical strength. I am wondering if you have anywhere you can go ( like an agency or Salvo’s) to talk about your problems & what can be done to help you. Regards.

    • Kay Ross on said:

      I agree…please…go and talk to someone to get some practical help….I feel your pain….I sincerely wish a better year for you and your family in 2014.

  3. You’re where I’ve been and large sections of my family are. Thank you for capturing what it is like.

  4. I have been where you are, I feel your pain. I’m sending you strength & hope & faith & every good & positive vibe that I can muster.
    Much love friend xxx

  5. Caroline on said:

    It’s only been about twelve years since my family and I were in a similar situation. Mum doing it on her own with four of us to feed. Many meals of baked beans and donated bread. Best of luck to your son this year, believe me, he appreciates everything you do. Thanks for your efforts and your sacrifice, made by so many parents doing the best they can. I hope things get better soon.

  6. I understand the situation completely. Although I don’t have children to provide for – which makes the humiliations less mortifying. I’ve been homeless (street homeless) before, then got help from housing w a Prival Rental Subsidy (I’m in NSW) got a private rental, then a community housing org. offered me a house, it was bliss, until the neighbour started harassing me to the point I was granted a Private AVO against them but the process took its toll and I had to leave that place under duress & leave Sydney altogether because I couldn’t afford a rental place anywhere but in rural Aus. I was fortunate to have a new partner who helped me get out of there & we moved in together, meaning then I had the support and love and extra income from my S. Imagine two very socially awkward, disabled, and intensely shy people in a tiny town where houses, for some strange reason, have no fences. Weird.
    Unfortunately my darling S decided pain, illness, extreme stress, poverty, and shame were too much for him to bear. He died 4 months ago. I now cannot afford the rent of the home we shared together, I am 3 weeks away from street again. I lined up for housing assistance today, I felt mortified for the eleventeenth time asking for money, forms were filled, checked, filed, again. This has been my weekly visit to “the city” since before the funeral. I thought I had secured a new rental home and all they were asking for was 2 weeks adv rent, but today the tune changed now they want 4wks bond plus 2wks upfront, I have $2.29 on my bank account. So all I could do was laugh and sob uncontrollably at the same time. I so wish I could work again but my health prevents me. Being unwell is what got me into poorness, then poverty then the streets.
    So my dear lady, pick up the phone, I know how much it hurts and makes you ashamed but anything is better than the street especially because of the kids.
    I wish you all the very best. Look after yourself too, your health is essential to be able to get back up again.

  7. I hear you. I lost my teeth to poverty. I was lucky that my teeth were the only things to go. I hear you honey, I hear you.

  8. we are in a rather tight situation now for a while too…
    i know ‘those calls’ and the way the people talk to sucks so much. i had a good career in the past overseas and have never been unemployed for that long either.
    i can’t be much more frugal and it takes it out of you, when you can’t even go to the near beach or to the park because yes, this week, I will have to say no! to a $2 icecream or a drink as we need every single cent to get to the next pay..
    Just letting you know that there WILL be schoolkids bonus this month, they are saying before the 20th, so watch out for it, otherwise contact centrelink! even if it may be the last (ffs) at least it might help you a little for the back2school stress.
    all the best to you x

  9. Got an idea. Contact See your tweets and send your number so we can call you.

  10. yours is a moving tale.

  11. I can empathise with your situation. Under the Fraser government, my political stance led to my becoming sacked from the Australian Public Service for “not working hard enough”. At the time I found the concept hilarious and joked about being “the laziest of the lazy”. But after being “unemployable” for a while I discovered the joke was on me. The only “advice” I feel qualified to give you is never to feel bad about your decision to quit your job. If you felt like you had to do it at the time, then never use the “benefit” of hindsight to criticise yourself.

  12. I feel for you and your family, please know that not all Labor Party supporters agreed with what Julia Gillard and her government did, I will never vote for them again. Your pain and distress about your children is close to my heart, it’s hard to tell your children they have to give up their sports activities and even worse saying no to party invitations because you can’t afford a gift, I was lucky though I live in a coastal town and the beach was free. I wish you well and maybe we will get a government next time that actually cares about it’s citizenry for history judges us by how well we treat the most disadvantaged, and our record in the last 20years is shameful.

  13. I am so sorry to hear about your struggles. Your story is all too familiar with me – however I was just a kid in that situation and my mum was in your position.

    She skipped meals and we ate two-minute noodles or mac and cheese most nights. I would hear her sobbing on the phone late at night asking family for help. We got food boxes from the Salvos, though she chucked out the boxes to try and hide it from us.

    These days most places have gift cards for safeway / coles? They’re not much, but they might help make the squeeze a little less tight.

    For a few years, when it was really bad, we got our presents from the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal (An idea for next christmas, perhaps?? though I hope things have improved for you by then). I felt so ashamed next to the other kids with their shiny presents. But now I feel thankful my mum did this, and guilty for having those thoughts.

    Your story has touched me deeply, and I remember back to the gut-wrenching agony of poverty and the constant threat of homelessness of my childhood. I’m not sure what I’m trying to convey to you here…. just hold on if you can. Know that you are not alone in your situation. My thoughts are with you and I wish you all the best.

  14. Hinton John Lowe on said:

    This is the tragic trajectory from deprivation to humiliation- the real experience of poverty. To be emptied out into the sin bin, punitive impoverishment in every form, which serves in the right wing ideological vision of a well functioning society, as the deterrent against ‘failure’ to conform with the norm of compliant worker-consumer. There is analogy here with the new Government’s- and to a great extent the previous as well, treatment of asylum seekers. Bot systems inflict shame and other harms on fellow human beings as an instrument of political and economic objectives. It is done, without compassion or conscience, in the service of elites which our economic and political systems in actuality serve. The loathsome rationale for both is the specious argument that it is done for a ‘greater good’- which, whatever it may mean, certainly has nothing to do with our ‘common good’.

  15. Sorry to read about your circumstances. I am not sure if you are actively looking for work or there are just no jobs available where you are but I would be happy to look at your resume if you think it might help. I have experience in helping job seekers prepare resumes and cover letters.

  16. Mally's Girl on said:

    Like so many others, I know this story, and have lived this story. After four years of repeated failure and knockback, dumped from SPP to Newstart and a diet of rice/potatoes/pasta. I have diabetes now, but landed a casual job just before Christmas. It won’t last until winter, and in fact, I bet it won’t last one week longer than the wage subsidy. Then I will really be afraid, because the hopelessness and despair, combined with the way shame and humble pie is heaved at us, is too much. I feel your pain, and I know to the bone that it doesn’t help.

  17. wilmawalrus on said:

    You are an amazing, strong, truthful person. I have not been in your situation, for which I am very grateful, but I am aware that with some circumstantial changes, any one of us could be. I have a couple of close friends whose marriages have broken down and I see how they struggle daily with trying to find money for essentials at different times. I am very fortunate to have a partner, a job and a home, but life can change at a moment’s notice, and I never take it for granted. I really hope that a great job comes your way very, very soon – if anyone deserves a break, it’s someone like you who refuses to give up. Good luck to you.

  18. That’s an incredibly honest and heartfelt post. It’s hard to know what to say, but I wanted to say something… I hope this year is better. I hope stuff gets better and easier. I hope fortune comes your way. You deserve it. (And you’re a wonderful, wonderful writer.)

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