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Not poor just broke


Friday is the final day of the Oaktree Foundation's Live Below the Line campaign, in which participants raise money for those living in extreme poverty and challenge themselves to live on just $2 a day.

The campaign has run annually in Australia since 2009, but this year it resonates with me more than usual. After months of slights about 'welfare culture', with politicians downplaying the lived reality of the poor, gestures of solidarity with those living in extreme poverty need to increase in substance if we are to take poverty seriously.

Being broke in any Australian state capital can be painful, but for most of us not life-threatening, just depressing. There are only so many 'free' walks you can take around your own neighbourhood. When you're broke, everyone else seems to have endless disposable income, and everything interesting happens over a pint you can't afford.

Taking time out of that kind of consumer culture to live on $10 for a working week really is a meaningful gesture of solidarity with the world's poor. Does it go far enough to challenge the structures that underpin global poverty? Probably not. It doesn't change the fact that our economic system depends on people living in poverty, people who can be confined to the cheapest, most dangerous labour.

But it's a gesture that has arisen from a sense of alienation young people have from the world of party politics, a realm in which ethics are a voter commodity.

This kind of gesture also riffs off the difference between being broke and being poor. Many students and jobseekers on welfare payments, even when they are skint, implicitly know that they are not the world's poor. They are broke, but mostly have the facility and means to eventually find their way out of their financial quandaries.

That's not to downplay the alienating effects of poverty, nor is it to pretend our economic culture is at all just. But it's important to identify that not everyone with an overdrawn bank account and low income is living in poverty.

There are ways of living on a low income that do not entail poverty, strategies that low-income earners have championed for centuries. Living in shared living arrangements, growing food and finding alternative means of sustaining oneself all help alleviate what could become poverty.

Poverty on the other hand is being locked out of the ability to make choices, or exercise autonomy.

A few years ago, when my shifts had been dramatically cut at the store I worked at and I was waiting on a few freelancing cheques that were slow to arrive, I found myself down to $3 for the entire week. I don't like borrowing money, so I spent it all on a 3kg bag of potatoes and got creative.

The thing to remember is that I had $3 and a functional kitchen. I prepared the potatoes with olive oil, garlic, butter and spices from my cupboard, and the herbs growing in the garden. I steamed them in my microwave, fried them on my stove. My rent was up-to-date, as were my gas and electricity bills.

I still had friends who would feed me if I was starving, a family who would house me if I'd had an injury, some employment prospects, and good health. Although I felt sluggish and bored that week, it was an experience of being broke, not being poor. 

Being broke doesn't equal poverty, but it can lead to poverty. Someone who is broke, who can't even afford basic dental health (I recently discovered that welfare payments don't go far in the dentist's surgery), is unlikely to be in a position to take on an unpaid internship that could benefit their career in the long-term.

A broke person experiencing an unplanned pregnancy might be unable to exercise a genuine choice about her own family. Broke people can't afford ongoing therapy which helps manage their mental health problems. Being broke diminishes the ability to make choices, and this can lead to poverty.

So while living on $2 a day might be a safe, gentrified way of slumming it, at least it shows how difficult it can be to live without cash. It shows why we need to support people who are on the cusp of poverty; if they stay broke too long, they might just fall in.


Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist and editor of Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, poverty, Oaktree Foundation, live below the line, minimum wage, Newstart



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Existing comments

A good article, and very true. One can get by on very little if all one's bills are paid and there are cash-rich friends on standby -- and you know that the situation is temporary. Surely the worst thing about true poverty is anxiety about the future. But can someone tell me what 'riff off' means? First time I have seen this expression!

MC | 10 May 2013  

An eye-opening article, Ellena. Fortunately, you are not consigned to this sort of situation for life. One of the most amazing things which has struck me over the years (since 1956) since I arrived in this country as a boy was and is the continued existence of poverty amongst the mainstream Australian community. Having had a rather gilded childhood in immediate post-Raj India, where a lot of what would now be considered "old colonial relics" (the British ICS; military; railway & communication people) like my father "stayed on" to finish their time, then to "return home" to a radically changed UK (except we came here) I still find it hard to believe. I have had Aboriginal colleagues and friends and know from their stories that their problems are as bad as, if not worse. White poverty, for someone who came from a place where the European community (Brits; Domiciled Europeans and Anglo-Indians) stuck together and supported each other through thick and thin was a new experience to observe. I see the current Government's and Opposition's approaches to the whole issue of (anyone's) long term poverty as both hypocritical and atrocious. It, to me, represents a hard, very Victorian approach to things. Very 19th Century. I wish we would emulate the approach of the Scandinavian countries or the Netherlands to the problem.

Edward F | 10 May 2013  

it doesn't take much to go from middle class - or rich - to poor: an accident, a mugging, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, systems down, floods, terrorists, you name it, but don't put it down to bad luck, that can happen to anyone, just count on God's mercy and Providence and never put your faith in money, because it'll let you down every time.

walter p komarnicki | 10 May 2013  

"Riff off" - a riff is a musical sequence which repeats throughout the piece. As a verb, it means to play a riff. So, I read "to riff off the difference between being broke and being poor" as to play on the difference. In the context, to be aware and show solidarity with the truly poor, while knowing you are not really so - you know the way out. [One most profound observation of a missionary (in South America, I think it was), who lived with the poor, was that although he lived with them, he was not truly poor, as he knew there was a way out].

Peter Horan | 10 May 2013  

Wish this week was better known (first I had heard of it...) So true what you say Ellena "when you're broke, everyone else seems to have endless disposable income, and everything interesting happens over a pint you can't afford". A recent significant change in my family's economic circumstances means a strict budget and saw me this week deciding between the dinner my visiting grandchildren enjoy and a jar of coffee to see me through the week's work. Needless to say the coffee lost and I have a headache for lack of it. It's the powerlessness (long ago highlighted by Peter Hollingworth in The Powerless Poor) that in the end wears the broke down into poverty.We are really not going to 'get it' till we try (in however a gentrified way) to walk even a few steps in their shoes.

margaret | 10 May 2013  

When I was a student in the 1970s I can remember having nothing more than empty soft drink bottles to cash in before I received my next pay cheque or small scholarship payment. (Those were the days when you could return them and get 5 or 10c) This would buy me a chicken sandwich and a coffee if I had a good stash of old bottles. I did manage to survive so yes I was broke but not poor. I still had the wherewithal to find cheap meals, make do. Being broke in some ways means you can't immediately buy what you want. Poverty means you can't buy what you need and robs you of a future, of possibilities, of hope. Sadly this is a prospect that more and more Australians are facing I fear. Great article Elena

ann beatty | 10 May 2013  

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