by REBECCA DOUGLAS
It’s not something you admit in polite company, at a dinner party, on first meeting someone, or at any other time for that matter. They look at you in a whole new light, and it’s not a flattering one.
I lived in public housing. For 20 years. On welfare.
In several ways, my family fit the stereotype: single mum, alcoholic father, both with a history of unemployment and unskilled jobs and a fondness for wearing trackie dacks in public.
In many ways, we didn’t: Mum had me when she was 35 (so very much not a teen pregnancy), Dad was dux of every school class he was ever in and we all manage to speak without a single “ain’t”, “youse” or “could of” amongst the lot of us.
As for me, I was known as a straight-A student who never drank, took drugs or sneezed in the wrong direction. From early on, Dad had emphasised the importance of listening to my teachers and getting good grades so one day I could land a good job and earn decent money. And when my dad talks, people listen — from the sheer decibel level alone.
But no matter how hard you try or how hard you work, you’re still just a “dole bludger” in the eyes of many, even if you’re a kid who’s had little choice in the matter. This sank in during Year 12, when a journalist interviewed my mum about a new government policy affecting public housing tenants. The photo in the newspaper might as well have lit our house up in neon lights. The anonymous calls came thick and fast for weeks afterward. I’d answer our phone to be yelled at, sworn at and told I was worthless, leeching off the government, was the scum of the earth and, of course, a dole bludger.
Now, I love a good dose of righteous indignation as much as the next person (People parking in handicapped spaces! Politician pay rises! The mere existence of Kim Kardashian!), but this made little sense. Weren’t my family the battlers Aussies traditionally fight for? Weren’t we the poor peasants you rooted for in fairy tales as a kid? But in Australia these days, Robin Hood is dead and Cinderella can get f*cked for all we care. She’s probably scrubbing floors on a Work-for-the-Dole scheme somewhere.
That’s the real kicker about not being poor — it’s not just that there’s less cash in the bank and everything you own is not quite as shiny and new. It’s called ‘socio-economic disadvantage’ for good reason. Aside from worrying about how to pay your bills, you have to deal with whatever problems got you into this mess, plus other people’s judgement because they’re (cue massive sense of entitlement…) Tax Payers. A hand-out with a side order of hatred. And it’s not simply a case of “They bank-rollin’, they hatin’”. It runs much deeper than that.
The awful truth is, many of us could be just one tragic life event away from poverty and public housing. Marriages fall apart, businesses fail, houses burn down, people become ill or lose their jobs. Depression sets in, bills pile up and suddenly you’re in the queue at Centrelink wondering what the hell happened to your life.
Maybe you’re stronger than that and have family support. That’s terrific for you and maybe that will save you, but many people don’t have parents who can look after their kids for a while or lend them money until they get back on their feet. They don’t have friends in high places who can help them find a new job. They don’t have the money to pay lawyers to fight on their behalf.
This is the new fairy tale we comfort ourselves with in Australia, Snow White and the Seven Bludgers. There’s seven bludgers for every one decent, hard-working, honest citizen like me. The bludgers have sunk into poverty because they’re flawed characters. They’re clearly too Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Lazy, Dishonest, Dopey and Dull. I’m smart, I work hard, I’m not a bludger, so it will never happen to me. Until it does.
And then you’re living in public housing and queueing at Centrelink for your welfare payments in your trackie dacks. Your friends have mysteriously disappeared — the dinner invitations dry up and former friends suddenly stop returning your calls and avert their eyes when you’re around. Being a welfare recipient is not something you talk about or admit in polite company. So, where do you turn?
What, are you looking at me, an honest, hard-working citizen? You expect me to ride in on my white horse and save you? Pffft, I’m not your Prince Charming. I ain’t helping you mate, you’re just a bludger.
Rebecca Douglas is a features writer whose work has appeared in magazines including Women’s Health & Fitness, Cosmo Bride, and Diabetic Living. When she’s not writing her blog for aspiring Carrie Bradshaws and magazine addicts, Becks and the City, she can be found bludging here and here.
Have you known anyone on Centrelink payments?