Following the announcement of the Abbott Government’s first Federal Budget, I noticed two distinct trends emerging, particularly on Facebook. One of those was outrage at what seems to be, in the opinion of many, an especially harsh and unfair budget that will see the most vulnerable hit the hardest. The other is what I can only describe as poverty shaming.
A key sticking point among my Facebook friends was the announcement of a $7 co-payment to visit a doctor. Those who are angry at the government saw this as a measure that would negatively impact the poor and chronically ill. Others, however, seemed to be convinced that $7 is simply small change, no problem at all. One person even went so far as to say “before you whinge again about paying $7 to see a doctor, have a think about all those other poor people who never even get a chance to even fucking see one!”. I can only assume that person was referring to those in developing nations.
Here’s thing. If the co-payment had been in place a few years ago, I would have been one of those “poor people” who wouldn’t have had a chance to see a doctor. Only I wasn’t in a so-called “third-world country”. I was right here, in Australia.
I was working full time. 8am – 6pm, Monday to Friday. Sometimes on Saturdays, too – not what we seem to love referring to as a “dole bludger”. I was living alone, in a run-down cottage with 1 bedroom and no laundry facilities, which was fine because I didn’t own a washing machine. The rent included a fridge, which was great because I didn’t own one and couldn’t afford to buy one. It was the only rental property I could find that wasn’t too far away from work (necessary, as I don’t have a car) that was under $200 per week. I didn’t smoke. I drank very rarely, because my budget just didn’t allow for it. I didn’t have an internet connection. My mobile phone was prepaid and I didn’t have a landline. My rent was paid calendar monthly and one particular month it had to be paid within a few days of my gas and electricity bills. I bought my bus ticket to be able to get to and from work.
With a week until pay day, I had $6 left in my bank account.
And I hadn’t even had a chance to go grocery shopping.
I had a loaf of bread, some margarine, a box of corn flakes, some instant coffee and maybe a quarter of a litre of longlife milk to get me through the week. My phone ran out of credit. I couldn’t add any. I couldn’t call or text anyone.
I can’t remember a time in my life where I have been more ashamed.
A friend came to visit. The best I could offer her was a cup of crappy coffee, with a tiny dash of milk. I was mortified.
She came back later that day, and without saying a word, handed me two bags of groceries. I don’t think we ever spoke about it. After she left, I burst into tears. It was, and still is, quite possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. Katie, I don’t know if you realised it, but you saved me that day, and I still get teary thinking about it.
The thing about being poor is that it’s actually expensive as fuck. You don’t have the money to shell out for a quality fridge, or car, or pair of shoes, for example. Which means that what you do have doesn’t last long, or you can’t afford the cost of repairs. So life becomes a never-ending cycle of replacing shitty things with shitty things, and feeling shitty about having to do it. Not having an oven (which my little crap shack didn’t) means relying on things that can be microwaved – things that are often more expensive than fresh food. They say that “time is money”, something that is especially true if you’re poor. I was spending so much time working in order to make ends meet that I didn’t have time to hunt for another job. And job hunting itself is expensive. These days you need an internet connection, a phone with credit, access to a printer, decent clothes for interviews, and some form of transport just to actually be able to attend an interview.
Today, I consider myself lucky. I’m by no means well off. I’m incredibly grateful to receive an Australian Postgraduate Award while I do my PhD, and to be able to work part time. The combination of working and studying takes about 60 hours a week, for me to earn just under the federal minimum wage. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be outraged, and protest on behalf of those who are worse off than me. My opposition to the budget doesn’t mean that I’m outraged because it affects me personally. We can be just as outraged because it will impact others. And we should be. It’s common decency.
If the proposed $7 GP co-payment had been in place several years ago, I would have been one of “those” people who couldn’t afford to go the doctor. And if I’d been able to log on to Facebook and see people being berated and belittled for not being able to afford it, I would have felt even shittier than I already did.
If you can afford the $7 fee, that’s wonderful. If it’s not such a big deal for you, that’s great, it means you’re luckier than others. But that’s all. Luckier. Not better.
If you’re one of those less-than-empathetic people out there who thinks that $7 isn’t a big deal, think again. But think about what you’re saying. Recognise that not everyone on your friends list is as well off as you are, even if you don’t realise it. Stop poverty shaming.
And if you’re one of those people who is willing to publicly shame someone for not being able to afford $7, you’re an asshole.