Why going on the dole doesn’t make you a bludger.

Sandra Reynolds

You may recognise her name, or perhaps more so her blogger moniker, $120 food challenge, Sandra Reynolds has been a devoted Mamamia reader, writer and is now a success in her own right. The premise of her blog came about as an unemployed, mother-of-two who had to feed her her family a week’s worth of meals from the measly $60 Salvos allowance. What happened next was that she developed a following, inspired others with her nutritious creativity, and subsequently book publishers caught on and offered her a book deal. A well deserved book deal, at that.

However, the last three days have not been amongst her best, caught in the eye of a media storm (been there done that, here). Sandra has been subject to some nasty online vitriol after she appeared in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald you can read that here. Presently caught in a limbo between not working and trying to establish herself as an author and food writer, it was this quote from the article which angered readers:

“I do hope to keep going but at the same time I have to be careful with Centrelink, I have to keep looking for jobs,” she says. “I’d like to work until I can do this full time. I kind of like being a food writer.”

Just for the record, Sandra has not asked us to write anything, we came across John Birmingham’s article from the Brisbane Times and thought he summed it up perfectly. It has been republished here with full permission.

By John Birmingham*

“There’s a perfectly good support system for hungry musicians,” said the rock journalist. “It’s called the dole.”

I’m paraphrasing. It was 20 years ago, and I used to have bongs for breakfast in those days. So my memory’s not perfect. But, as I recall, we were discussing some dodgy Hawke government scheme for supporting the music industry. Specifically, rock music.

The venerable old rock writer, whom I won’t verbal by naming, thought it a terrible idea. Feral rock pigs should be writing awesome guitar anthems (which totally dates that conversation), not grant applications. Should they have trouble feeding themselves, there was always the dole. If they were any good they’d eventually make enough money for the tax man to come after them. If they didn’t, teachers’ college awaited.

It was Darwinian, but it sat easily with me. Still does. After all, I was a teenaged dole bludger. A 20-something bludger too. In fact, as a baby writer, I was on and off the dole so many times I sort of lost count. But I think I might’ve topped out at about seven.

Go on, tell me all about how I ripped you off. Work yourselves up into a spit-flecked rage, like you did with that poor woman earlier this week; the single mum who tossed in some dead-end casual McJob, only to find she couldn’t feed herself, or her kids. Sandra Reynolds, her name was. And now she has a book deal with Penguin.

John Birmingham’s memoir

Like a lot of people who find themselves out of a job, Sandra had time on her hands. Unlike many, she did something with it. Something useful besides collecting rejection letters from employers who didn’t want her. She started collecting recipes. Ways of feeding a family for $120 a fortnight – the value of the food vouchers she received from the Salvation Army at her lowest point.

She posted her recipes online, and gradually built up a following. A big enough following so that one day a publishing house came calling.

Sandra Reynolds did exactly what I did, and what a lot of people have done over the years, but she did it in a shorter period of time than me and the end results were arguably more useful. I drifted on and off the dole, and after many years finally wrote a book about falafels. Sort of. Reynolds seems to have spent much less time on the dole and has written a book about how to cook falafels. Sort of. Or maybe fish finger sandwiches, or something. You get my point.

What’s the difference between us?

Go read the comments in response to the original story. Old JB walks away with the goldplated hovercraft and a squadron of Playboy bunnies. Sandra Reynolds cops a toxic torrent of abuse that would break the spirits of the most of the vicious little pissants who decided to have a go at her.

Bottom line: Reynolds’ book will probably be a monster seller. It’s a great idea with a great story behind it. There will almost certainly be a sequel. She will make a motza out of it, and good luck to her. She deserves it. She earned it. And, here’s the money shot, she will almost certainly pay more tax on the profits from that book than she has ever been paid in welfare. Many more times.

The two-dollar heroes bagging her out make me sick. You roll in here with your lynch ropes and your nail-studded clubs screaming for vengeance against some woman you think dudded you out of your hard-earned. Two words. Bull and shit. You paid about one tenth of 1 per cent of bugger all to keep her children fed when she couldn’t find work.

I hesitate to write this next passage because it’s unfair. But I’m going to anyway. You deserve it.


I rorted you something fierce when I was on the dole. I had not the slightest intention of seriously looking for work. All I wanted to do was have enough time to build up my writing to the point where I could feed myself and keep a roof over my head. A leaky roof. And the feeds weren’t that flash either. I wasn’t always on the dole. Every now and then I managed to find part-time work that kept me in the poverty to which I’d become accustomed, and that allowed me to keep writing. But at least six or seven times I went back on the public tit.

Why do I feel comfortable telling you this now? Because I have been writing full-time for 20 years and I’ve put many more dollars back into the system via tax than I ever took out of it while on the dole. Got me a nice big tax bill sitting on my desk right now, in fact, waiting on a royalty cheque from the US. Mmm, revenuelicious.

If a woman like Sandra Reynolds needs a hand up via the welfare system when she’s at her lowest point, I’m happier to see my tax dollars spent on her than I am on the middle-class welfare you’ve probably got your hands out for. Your baby bonuses. Your family tax benefits. Your private school subsidies. Your superannuation tax breaks. Your private health insurance rebates. Your first-home owner schemes. Shall we go on?

The attack on Reynolds reminded me of a Henry Kissinger quip about academic in-fighting. The fighting is vicious because the stakes are so low. There are so many other, worthier, targets than a single mum who used the long, dark teatime of unemployment to fashion herself a slightly alternative income stream. News flash: that’s what welfare does. It helps people until they can help themselves. It didn’t fail in the Reynolds case. It wasn’t rorted. It did exactly what it was supposed to do, and now she’ll pay it all back and then some when the ATO does its sums at the end of financial year.

Go Google ”Operation Wickenby” and you’ll get a quick and dirty education in who the real rorters are in this country. And they’re not unemployed single parents faffing around on Facebook.

WHO IS JOHN BIRMINGHAM? *John Birmingham is an Australian author, most noted for his memoir He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, which has since been turned into a play, film and a graphic novel. The sequel is The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco. The play was written and produced by thirty-six unemployed actors. It went on to become the longest running stage play in Australian history. Other works by him include The Search for Savage Henry, How To Be A Man, Off One’s Tits and Leviathan: the unauthorised biography of Sydney, which won Australia’s National Prize For Non-Fiction in 2002. He contributes to the Brisbane Times and you can find his blog, Cheeseburger Gothic here.


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