In recent times, the St Vincent de Paul Society has thrown its support behind the #RaiseTheRate campaign to raise the Newstart Allowance by $75 by calling on its supporters to sign a petition and by setting up a new microsite at https://raisetherate.vinnies.org.au/.
The National Council office is always on the look-out for personal stories so people can better understand the struggles experienced by people living below the poverty line. Obtaining these personal stories can be a long haul but an immensely rewarding one. It involves seeking the appropriate permissions and working with members to ensure the Society’s companions are comfortable sharing their experiences.
Many of these case studies are used by the Society’s Director of Policy and Research, Corinne Dobson, when she is writing submissions to Federal Parliament on social security legislation and advocating for the rights of low-income people. The Society’s dedicated communications and marketing teams also work diligently alongside their colleagues and members to ensure the personal stories are shared through the mainstream media in a way that upholds the dignity of all involved and promotes the Society in the best possible light.
Similarly, The Guardian’s ‘Life on the breadline’ series has captured the stories of people who have struggled to live on the Newstart Allowance, which is the equivalent of approximately $38 a day. The beauty of this series is the stories are told in first person, while case studies are often told from the point of view of a third party. That third party, possibly a Vinnies member, can of course do their very best to relate the circumstances, but it does not compare to hearing lived experiences of poverty. Empowering the people the Society assists to tell their stories can be linked back to the Society’s Strategic Plan 2016–2020 that states:
National Council will develop strategies to create a greater awareness within the Australian community of all that we do and why we are impelled by the Gospel to stand with people who are disadvantaged, isolated or marginalised.
At the time of writing, the ‘Life on the breadline’ series has comprised six stories of Australian women and men. The first story in the series was published in May 2018 and featured the life account of a young woman from Adelaide, Nijole Naujokas, who described how the ‘internal war of what we should and should not have is ever-present for people living below the poverty line’ when she wrote about debating whether to buy $6.50 crackers for a friend’s birthday.
According to The Guardian, the series is designed to give a platform to people living on Newstart and other income support payments. The Australian Council of Social Service defines the poverty line as $343 a week for a single person to live on after housing costs, and $720 a week for a couple with children.
The two other women featured in the series are Amethyst DeWilde, a middle-aged woman who also lives in Adelaide and has been on a disability support pension since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and Tara Rose, a single mother of three teenagers from Western Australia. Amethyst says ‘pride is a luxury she can no longer afford’: ‘There is so much about being poor that you never admit to anyone due to its embarrassing nature. You hope that others have open hearts and don’t judge too harshly, but the daily realities for poor people show otherwise.’
In her own words, Tara describes her turning point into poverty occurring three years ago following a separation after 14 years of marriage. In her story, Tara touches on topics of hunger, mother-guilt as she says ‘no’ to her children’s request for new shoes or jeans, and regret as she realises she might receive high bills for cooling the kids off with a garden hose over summer. Tara also reflects on the satisfaction she receives from growing veggies in her garden and knowing her children are nourished.
The other stories in the series have varied themes. Mick Smart, a young man from regional Victoria, has one big meal a day as he puts aside money to treat chronic pain. Tasmanian David Samuel* is in his 50s and has been unemployed long-term and must navigate the private rental market, which has scarce options for people on Newstart. David was widowed 20 years ago and brought up his son as a single father. ‘It’s easy to feel the anxiety start rising when you think about the major decisions to make as you get older,’ he says.
The most recent story in the series is from Indigenous man and Sydney artist Gavin Ritchie. He injects some humour into his piece, describing how he didn’t realise he was poor growing up: ‘Whenever I heard them say the breadline, all I could imagine was that someone had lined up bread rolls in the sky. To this day I still haven’t seen it.’ He puts an unusual twist on people’s perspective of what poverty is: ‘I know many people who are of a higher socioeconomic status than myself and I feel for them deeply. I said to one, “If your credit card don’t work and mummy and daddy don’t pick up the phone, you’re screwed. I on the other hand have learned to subsist on less than nothing. I survive”.’
A common theme through all the stories is the all-too-human worry about ‘what other people will think’, so great is the stigma of living in poverty in Australia in 2018. After reading these stories you will understand more about the campaign to #RaiseTheRate. The Newstart Allowance urgently needs to be increased by a minimum of $75 a week—a figure calculated by Professor Peter Saunders from the University of New South Wales in his budget standards research and deemed to allow for the necessities in life.
Visit the Society’s website at https://raisetherate.vinnies.org.au/ for more information about the campaign and consider adding your name to the petition at https://www.acoss.org.au/raisetherate/joinus/.
*Name has been changed.
Colleen O’Sullivan is a Communications Advisor for the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council. She is currently on parental leave.