If you read Life on the breadline, you got to know the humans behind the headlines | Lucy Clark | Australia news
Given enough time, human connection and understanding isn’t hard. In the year since we launched the Life on the breadline series, we’ve had the luxury of time to get to know six Australians living below the poverty line.
Amethyst DeWilde, Mick Smart, Tara Rose*, Nijole Naujokas, David Samuel* and Gavin Ritchie signed on in May last year to do something so few already vulnerable people are able to do – to put their most private stories into the public domain, to risk becoming even more vulnerable.
Every fortnight we’ve published their stories, and they’ve generously shared the details of their day-to-day lives as well as their unique perspectives on the world of welfare.
The aim was to go behind the reductionist headlines and easy handles – dole bludgers, leaners, rorters – to get to know the humans, to give them their own platform to write in their own way. When you lose your voice, you lose your power, and so we wanted our writers to have their voices heard in a way that was more than just a quote or a soundbite.
Almost three million Australians live in poverty, and the vast majority of them aren’t prone on our streets, sleeping in doorways, or holding cardboard signs on city corners. They walk around like you and me, and it’s perilously easy to brush past them in our busyness, to not really look.
If you read Life on the breadline, you really looked. You saw that people break down and cry if they smash their jar of instant coffee, then they sweep up the glassy granules, put them in a strainer, and make a coffee anyway. You saw that parents lie awake at night worrying what else – apart from their own dinner – they can sacrifice for their kids. You saw the arithmetic gymnastics that go on, tossing up between eating and taking a beloved pet to the vet, or between paying the water bill or the electricity bill. You read of the “crushing” experience of a simple trip to the supermarket. You saw that some scrape mould off food and eat it anyway, that they pick over food reserved for chooks. That they can’t afford internet access, a $4.50 coffee, a nice packet of crackers to take to a party, that they know how to make one meal last for days, or that they design their days around what free meals are where.
You saw that our writers also live in abject fear of losing their welfare payments. That they felt punished by the system, and so continually threatened that the fear was visceral, and sometimes made them sick. You saw, too, that the system and the stigma makes them continually feel unworthy, like failures.
You saw that they are exhausted by the bureaucracy, bemused by the onerous obligations, shamed by society’s judgement of them as having some kind of character flaw or weakness rather than just being out of a job or being disabled, and that very often this made them question the value of their own lives.
You saw that despite this, they work damn hard – sometimes harder than many employed people – just to make it through their days.
You also saw how resourceful, resilient, brave, and smart, how funny, what great writers they are, and that they always reached for perspective and found a kind of grace – “I’m luckier than most”, “I’m one of the lucky ones”, “I’m so grateful for a roof over my head” – and that despite all they have to deal with, they are optimists who, counterintuitively, believe in their own good fortune.
Finally, the unanticipated beauty of Life on the breadline was the extraordinary support and sympathy these writers received from Guardian readers. It was so moving to watch. There were those who wrote to us directly with offers of financial help for our writers, and help they did. But the greater swell was in the comment threads on their stories, wave after wave of fellow-feeling that all together added up to a sense of hope – there’s so much goodness in the world.
These comments were from others who had tips, links, phone numbers and complicated instructions on how to best navigate the labyrinthine welfare system. Many found their experiences reflected in the series, and they candidly shared their own, similar stories. There were hundreds of motivational messages to keep going, to keep writing, to keep chins up and spirits high. A community formed and they gave each other strength. The writers, too, gained strength from such conspicuous compassion.
For Tara, a single mother raising three kids on Centrelink payments, there was heartfelt encouragement: “You are doing an incredible job under the crappest of circumstances and your children will be the more resilient and independent for your struggles.”
For Amethyst, suffering bipolar disorder and living on the disability pension, there was shared empowerment: “So many of us here BTL understand what you mean when you say you finally feel ‘seen’. Many of us who comment here are normally invisible to society…We are used to being ignored and having our views dismissed, but through this site our opinions are read and discussed, and we feel more visible. Having our opinions considered instead of dismissed is empowering… Amethyst, you are no longer invisible.”
For David, who lost his job in the global financial crisis, there were compliments: “Eloquence, insight and empathy cannot be measured like money. (And they do not pay bills.) But if they could be measured as such, you are a very wealthy man … I deeply appreciate your individual contribution to history through this piece.”
For Nijole, struggling on Newstart, there was shared indignation: “[A] poignant and rage-inspiring piece. Life is hard enough for many of us who are working, I cannot imagine how frustrating and heartbreaking the current environment is for someone who is simply trying to get on their feet.”
And then there was this, a simple one-line response among many lengthy comments on Mick Smart’s column about living with disabling, excruciating pain after being injured on a work for the dole scheme. He wrote about his frustrations with the system, and the sheer bloody difficulty of just getting through an hour.
It’s a message that conveys in few words not only a lament, but also a philosophy about the role of the welfare system, and the role of society itself:
“Sorry mate, we let you down.”
*Names have been changed
Reporting in this series is supported by VivCourt through the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust