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Not poor just broke

  • 10 May 2013

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