Life on the breadline: $4.50 on a coffee? Who can afford that?

Photo Kelly Barnes: Amethyst DeWilde with her dog Mojo
By and published by The Guardian 29 November 2018.


Name: Amethyst DeWilde

Age: 51

Turning point: Leaving my job in a toxic workplace and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder

Lives: Adelaide

After housing costs has to live on: $331.20 a week

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville

I’ve been thinking a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He posited that if the basic needs of food, shelter, warmth, clothing etc are not satisfied, the human body ceases to function optimally. In fact Maslow considered physiological needs the most important as all other needs become secondary until these needs are met.

It struck me recently that a society that ceases to ensure that Maslow’s basic needs are readily available to all its citizens, has given up the right to call itself a society – it has become an economy. When this happens, the entire narrative drifts to the right and we all bow down to the all holy, sanctified bottom line. So what does this mean? What does it mean in actual terms when a “society” becomes an “economy”?

It means that all worth is defined by economic worth, by profit. So our inherent worth as human beings is decided upon by our net worth.

The current hegemony about welfarers is that we are an indolent waste of humanity. Because our worth is defined by our economic status, we are therefore worth less than they who “contribute”. Hence we are worthless.

We only exist in the negative. The predominant discourse is classist and myopic. Rorters, leaners, entitled, bludgers. (And here I’d like to throw it open to the readers … what other rotten ways have we been described? Please comment below … I like collecting words.)

But of all the egregious ways in which we are shamed for things beyond our control, the worst by far is the all-consuming, consistent belief that we waste our money and hence are to blame for our circumstance. That those with money can “teach” us how to live well on what we have. It’s predicated upon the underlying premise that we are somehow stupid, that we don’t understand the value of money and need instruction on how to handle it.

It is informed by a complete lack of understanding of the indignity of indigence and it is ingrained in the attitudes of some of the people that take on the Sisyphean task of teaching the poor how to make ends meet.

The following is just one of those days in which this was made saliently clear to me.

I signed up for a course on “buying groceries on a budget” run by a charity that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.

We were promised a workshop with a free barbecue lunch to follow.

I don’t know anybody on Newstart that has enough food for there to be leftovers

This was particularly important on the day in question as I had run out of absolutely everything and had not eaten dinner the night before. (Don’t fret fellow welfarers, Mojo the magical Moondog did – but Mojo always does. It is with great pride that I can say that he has never gone hungry a single day of our friendship).

My GP access worker Clare took me to the workshop and we sat in a corridor to await the gleaning of knowledge.

There was free coffee – hallelujah! – my first in three days! Kudos to the organisers. So far, so good.

I blissfully partook in my silent obeisance to the caffeine gods until we were called into the room to begin.

As I took my place around the table I was immediately struck by the difference in posture between the welfarers and those with employment (the support staff, the workshop facilitators). Those on welfare sat slumped, instinctively hunching their shoulders as though to protect their hearts from further hurt. The difference in demeanour was blatant and stark.

I consciously adjusted my posture and sat straight, willing and eager to learn any thing new.

And it began.

“Everyone’s got freezers now.” the facilitator began, “So I’m going to start by…”

“Um, excuse me but I think that’s a bit of a presumption,” I couldn’t help but point out.

“My fridge blew up a month ago and I can’t afford a new one,” someone else said.

That began a cacophony of empathy. “That’s awful!” “What are you living on?” “Ramen noodles and soup.”

The facilitator continued gamely with her prepared script.

“Food wastage in Australia is at an all time high …”

Wastage? What wastage? I thought.

“Why throw something out when it can be reused? Leftovers isn’t a dirty word, you know.”

Leftovers? What leftovers? Doesn’t there have to be food actually left over for it to be defined as leftovers? I don’t know anybody on Newstart that has enough food for there to be leftovers.

“And if you’re a coffee drinker, that ONE coffee a day for $4.50 may only be $4.50 but over a year you’ve spent over $1,500! On COFFEE!!”

I sat silently, stunned. Whaaaat? $4.50 on a coffee? Who can afford that?

I began furious doodling on my notebook to quell my incipient rage.

This person had no clue about the vicissitudes of indigence and yet dispensed the trite phrases as though they were pearls of spiritual wisdom. It took all my forbearance not to challenge her every assertion with a massive raspberry. I was never going to survive this unless I took refuge in my head. This was almost as bad as some of the meetings when I worked in the public service …

In the sunny days of my solvency in the public service, my colleagues and I sometimes fantasised about playing “Meeting Bingo.”

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, this is true. But they can sure have a bloody good try

Phrases were circulated via email, all the old classics were included. “At the end of the day”, “the bottom line is”, “the hard decisions” etc. During the meeting, you were supposed to tick off the relevant idioms and yell “BINGO”, as soon as you had completed the list. Nobody I knew had ever actually played, at least not in the meetings I attended. But the concept that one could somehow stave off the stultifying boredom was a comfort indeed.

As I was lost in my reverie, an unspeakable horror hatched in my brain, born from the depths of the nefarious neo-liberalistic tenets. A phrase so paternalistic, patronising and pernicious that it automatically strips the recipients of their dignity as soon as they hear it. I became aware of my surroundings once more as I heard the facilitator begin her wrap up, my internal narrative racing her words as she stated them.

Noooo, she won’t say that. She’s not going to say that thing! She couldn’t possibly…

“After all, you must realise that …”

Oh my gods, she is, she is going to say that … I don’t believe it.

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy”.

My inner narrator screamed out BINGO!

The barbecue lunch was cancelled due to rain.

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, this is true. But they can sure have a bloody good try. I left the workshop feeling exhausted and marginalised. The irony that the facilitator was paid for this debacle was not lost on me.

I understood that people were trying their best, that they wanted to help, but surely some knowledge of life under penury should be a minimum requirement before anybody offers advice? The facilitator spoke from a different world, a world in which she could buy food at a moment’s notice, could replace a fridge without taking out a loan. Hell, she lived in a world in which people could afford to spend $4.50 on a coffee! Daily!

My poor GP access worker was the recipient of the full force of the resultant diatribe.

She listened patiently and then suggested a coffee at the Red Lime Shack, an amazing coffee shop in Port Adelaide that offers “suspended coffees” paid for by those who can, for those who cannot afford to pay. I eagerly assented.

The owner, Steph, greeted me with a sunny smile that did not waver when I told her I wanted a suspended coffee. We sat at a window table and waited for the nectar of the gods that was so needed on this extremely enervating day.

Outside, a homeless man sat down at a table and began to roll a cigarette. He was almost immediately joined by a friend who groaned wearily as he eased himself into the seat opposite. Steph glanced up from her work and acknowledged them with a wave, bestowing upon them the same sunny smile she had given me. “Usual?” “Yes please,” they responded.

I watched them through the window. They looked relaxed and happy, sure of their welcome. As they sat, drinking their coffee, smoking and laughing I realised that Steph was giving out so much more than free coffees. She was giving respect and a place for them to enjoy a tiny piece of peace. I smiled and all the angst-ridden ire of my day dissipated. Some people were getting it right. Individuals like Steph are beautiful people in a world of avarice and scorn. They shine like beacons of hope in a coffee cup and offer it with a sunshine smile. Best coffee ever.


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