real life

'I was once a single mum on welfare. Hope got me where I am today.'

My name is Nikki and I was once ‘trailer trash’. Yep.

For a period of my adult life, I was a certifiable member of the great unwashed, a pleb, a pov, a single mum on welfare. Someone once referred to me as ‘a wreck with spares’ – my kids being the spares, me being the wreck.

In this country, like most others, we have legislation against race discrimination, sex discrimination and age discrimination. But institutionalised and interpersonal classism is more virulent than ever. Poor people continue to be labelled, judged and discriminated against by neighbours, communities, the media, and even by our own government. It’s socially entrenched and it stinks.

Think of the kid in the playground with the holes in his only pair of shoes, you know that one who can’t afford to go on the school excursions, that little ‘houso’ loser. Think of that scraggy single mother with the bawling brat who doesn’t have quite enough silver coins to satisfy the check-out operator. Think of that deranged hobo on the street asking for small change so he can buy a bottle of beer. Think of those high-school drop-outs who can’t wait to get knocked up so they can get on the welfare gravy train.

Nikki McWatters was cleaning Kerry Packer's house. (Image: Supplied)

If those stereotypes sound familiar, you might just be a teensy bit classist. It’s not entirely your fault; it’s an attitude that is hammered into us from an early age. In this narcissistic, consumerist world, poverty is abhorrent. And as long as there is robust discrimination against poor people, the rich can get richer without check.

We can feel a sense of compassion for the business owners while maintaining cool disregard for the casual workers when their penalty rates are cut. After all, if they are so poor they’ll miss a few Sunday dollars in the pay packet, then it really is their fault for not being a lawyer.

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Listen: Nikki McWatters "had to hide behind a bin" for being so ashamed of the poverty she was living in (post continues after audio...)

We hear about dole bludgers and welfare cheats all the time while big corporations pay no tax. If we demonise people for being poor because it’s their ‘own fault’, then it makes us feel safer because we know ‘we’ would never choose to be poor. Newsflash: people don’t choose to be poor. Yes, sometimes bad decisions can lead to homelessness and abject poverty but mostly it’s due to a series of disasters.

Death, divorce, job-loss, eviction, mental illness, a serious health issue; any one or a combination of these nasty catastrophes, can spear-tackle perfectly decent human beings into the sinkhole of poverty. I’ve taken every single one of those hits at some time or other and I’ve sat in a cold house without electricity, feeding my kids raw two-minute noodles.

I cleaned rich people’s toilets for little more than a worker at a sweatshop. I’ve pinched toilet paper from libraries and paid for groceries with small sacks of silver change. I was that woman in the check-out line. My kids were the ones with holes in their shoes. My poverty did not define me, although so many times people sought to do exactly that.

vinnie's ceo sleep out
"People don't choose to be poor. Sometimes bad decisions can lead to homelessness and abject poverty but mostly it’s due to a series of disasters." (Image: Supplied)

The one thing that saved me and pulled me up and out of that situation was ‘hope’. It was almost completely extinguished a few times but I clung to it tightly. Think of that mouse on a treadmill. Think of lying awake at night stressing over bills and running very short grocery lists over and over in your head like a game of Tetris as you try to budget to make up enough meals for the next few days.

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This year I am involved in the Vinnies CEO Sleep-out to raise awareness for homelessness and people impacted by poverty. I remember with such potent gratitude the elderly volunteers from Vinnies who came to my door 26 years ago and gave me vouchers for my electricity bill, a food parcel and some cash to get my boys the rare treat of fish and chips.

They told me I was a good mother and things would get better for me. Those words meant the world to me. Hope and hard work and the steadfast belief I was worthy of a better life got me through the dark days of poverty.

"I remember with such potent gratitude, the elderly volunteers from Vinnies who came to my door twenty-six years ago and gave me vouchers for my electricity bill." (Image: Facebook)

Those volunteers shone a light for me back then and now, I can give back. Being poor is not a crime. But treating economically disadvantaged people with disdain and disrespect should be. Donate to a charity today. Pay for that woman’s groceries at the checkout. Sometimes a kind word and helping hand is all it takes to change someone’s life for the better.

Nikki McWatters is an internationally respected author and social commentator. She is also an ambassador and keynote speaker for the 2017 Vinnies CEO Sleepout in Melbourne; an event that is taking business and community leaders #FaceToFace with Poverty for one night on 22 June 2017.

To learn more about how you can support this important community event and fundraiser, please visit www.ceosleepout.org.au

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