Life on the bread­line: 'I am sick and tired of try­ing to be a cheer­ful poor per­son'

The Guardian Australia - - News / Politics - Ni­jole Nau­jokas

Name: Ni­jole Nau­jokas

Age: 34

Lives: Ade­laide

Turn­ing point: Not so much a turn­ing point as a slow re­al­i­sa­tion over many years that I’m un­able to work con­sis­tently due to ill health

Af­ter hous­ing costs has to live on: $169.03 a week

Last year when Alan Tudge likened be­ing re­liant on New­start to “poi­son” for the un­em­ployed, I re­mem­ber try­ing to process that in re­la­tion to my­self, a New­start re­cip­i­ent.

Here was the then min­is­ter for hu­man ser­vices who had ul­ti­mate power over Cen­tre­link pol­icy, say­ing the pay­ment I used to eat and pay rent was as bad for me as weed­killer and DDT. The pay­ment I used to stop be­ing home­less was ap­par­ently mak­ing my life worse. My abil­ity to eat and use elec­tric­ity was seen as toxic and harm­ful by this man who seemed to re­sent my pay­ment. Alan Tudge’s daily travel al­lowance in Canberra at the time, $276, was $107 more than what I had to sur­vive on for a week.

It’s amaz­ing how much a fail­ure one feels when you hear this kind of lan­guage on a daily ba­sis. The lan­guage used to de­scribe New­start re­cip­i­ents and poli­cies sur­round­ing them are par­tic­u­larly for­bid­ding. Put it down to my study­ing English, but I am keenly aware of the words used by politi­cians and the me­dia that I be­lieve are very de­lib­er­ately cho­sen to make the poor feel like shit. It de­hu­man­ises us.

This lan­guage that I’ve ob­served

over my time on New­start has be­come more and more in­sult­ing: class­ing peo­ple on New­start as “lean­ers” who “rort” the sys­tem, re­gard­less of their cir­cum­stances and the short­fall of jobs avail­able. You seem to be stamped with a scar­let let­ter that al­lows de­ri­sion and re­sent­ment to be flung at you from ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Then there’s the new “de­merit point” sys­tem. “De­merit points” in­fer break­ing the law through driv­ing in­frac­tions, but the big dif­fer­ence is that the law gives you the right to go to court and ap­peal if you be­lieve you have been un­fairly pe­nalised. De­merit points by them­selves don’t sus­pend your li­cence; while the de­merit points in this new sys­tem sus­pend your pay­ment un­til the job net­work de­cides to re­con­nect you. You can get them for some­thing as sim­ple as not turn­ing up to an ap­point­ment if they deem your ex­cuse “un­rea­son­able”. The case worker can claim you have not “be­haved ap­pro­pri­ately” in an ap­point­ment, so broad a term that it’s open to abuse.

I am ter­ri­fied of this new sys­tem as there is no power check for agen­cies that wrongly give de­mer­its. What does this say about how the govern­ment sees poor peo­ple? As less than crim­i­nals. Even mur­der­ers get ap­peals. Us­ing the lan­guage of crim­i­nal be­hav­iour like “com­mit­ting of­fences” and “tak­ing tax­pay­ers for a ride” cre­ates an as­sump­tion of guilt, not in­no­cence.

This lan­guage has the ef­fect of in­ter­nal­is­ing ha­tred in re­cip­i­ents, and I see it all the time. And peo­ple are sur­prised when a wor­thy dis­abil­ity sup­port pen­sion ap­pli­cant gets re­jected. I want to laugh. What did you think would hap­pen when you treated every­one on wel­fare like a crim­i­nal? The re­sult is that peo­ple who des­per­ately need help are not given it, lest it ac­ci­den­tally go to an un­der­serv­ing “bludger”. I feel so hope­less when I read in the news the con­stant new ways my life will be mon­i­tored and con­trolled.

You might think the de­merit point sys­tem is a good idea – “Well don’t do any­thing wrong and you won’t suf­fer”. I can tell you from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence that job net­works can and do cut peo­ple off in er­ror, and also in spite. Your case worker has ex­treme con­trol over your life; if they choose to abuse their po­si­tion be­cause they don’t like you there’s not much you can do. I resched­uled an ap­point­ment once due to med­i­cal is­sues, and this was not put in the sys­tem as my worker was off sick. What is hi­lar­i­ous is that when I rang to sort it out I was de­fen­sively told “Well peo­ple get sick”. I said, “So your work­ers can get sick and not turn up to ap­point­ments but I can’t?” I had a sick cer­tifi­cate and it was even­tu­ally sorted but not be­fore be­ing on hold and wor­ry­ing overnight that I wouldn’t have rent for the next day. The ab­so­lute lack of power that one feels when liv­ing on New­start is crush­ing.

When Cen­tre­link used to send out let­ters they were al­ways signed off with threats of can­cel­la­tion. Ev­ery com­mu­ni­ca­tion from them was laced with this threat that to not “en­gage” is to risk non-pay­ment. Get­ting that kind of threat con­stantly tends to make a per­son in­se­cure and lower their self­es­teem. The poli­cies of this govern­ment seem to re­peat­edly in­fer that I am a crim­i­nal hell-bent on steal­ing my pit­tance from tax­pay­ers so I can buy more pota­toes.

Tim Wil­son said New­start was “a tram­po­line, it’s not sup­posed to be a ham­mock where peo­ple get used to it”. Yep. it’s like a tram­po­line that has been in the sun for 24 years, brit­tle from ex­po­sure and lack­ing elas­tic. You can jump again and again, but get ab­so­lutely nowhere. Mean­while, al­though the springs are rust­ing and there is a tear in the fab­ric, the politi­cians point to you and say it’s your fault you can’t go any higher.

And while this is hap­pen­ing, you have pol­lies talk­ing about their tram­po­line 20 years ago, and wasn’t it fun to jump on. The dif­fer­ence is their tram­po­line was not as dam­aged and in a lot bet­ter shape. These “fond rec­ol­lec­tions” of politi­cians like Michaelia Cash who back­packed 20 years ago and was per­fectly happy with rice while trav­el­ling cause my eye to twitch. It is the height of ob­scen­ity to point to one’s own dab­ble into poverty while telling oth­ers to stop com­plain­ing, while claim­ing food al­lowances of $86 per day in Canberra that peo­ple like me can only dream of. I find it al­most com­i­cal how politi­cians seem to think that liv­ing on New­start is a lux­ury.

I am so sick and tired of try­ing to be a “cheer­ful” poor per­son. The amount of ef­fort that it takes to not feel rage at the way I am por­trayed in the me­dia is ex­haust­ing. The idea that my only means of eat­ing and not be­ing home­less is “poi­son” dis­gusts me, and it should dis­gust you too. The lan­guage used of “mu­tual obli­ga­tions” seems to never be ap­plied to the De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices and the pri­vate com­pa­nies who now have power to take your pay­ment away.

There is no “obli­ga­tion”, it seems, to treat clients with re­spect and dig­nity, or to even fol­low the leg­is­la­tion. There is no penalty for be­ing kept wait­ing 40 min­utes to only be told your worker is not there. No fi­nan­cial penalty for the job net­work for telling you that your choice of study is wrong, or told your study is point­less. I am so sick of try­ing to ex­plain the sys­tem to peo­ple who just don’t get it. It’s eas­ier to say noth­ing as no mat­ter how many times you try to ex­plain you are still thought of as a bludger and whinger. No one cares or wants to know, as it’s eas­ier to think it’s the per­son’s own fault. It’s scary to think it could hap­pen to you, so peo­ple pre­fer to think it can’t, and in­sult you in the process.

These are all lan­guage sig­ni­fiers to treat the poor as some morally bank­rupt “other” species, to jus­tify the out­ra­geous poli­cies thrown at peo­ple like me. I’ve had enough of it. Why not cre­ate some new monikers for other groups? “Tax­payer-funded jet­set­ter” could be politi­cians. Tim Wil­son claimed $77,000 in ex­penses as Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sioner. I’ve never heard him re­ferred to as an en­ti­tled bludger liv­ing off the tax­payer to fund his trav­els. Out of the two of us, I’m not the one most likely to be in a ham­mock.

• Com­ments are pre­mod­er­ated to en­sure the dis­cus­sion is about topic ad­dressed in this ar­ti­cle

• Sup­port our in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism with a one-off or monthly con­tri­bu­tion

The ab­so­lute lack of power that one feels when liv­ing on New­start is crush­ing

Pho­to­graph: Kelly Barnes for the Guardian

Ni­jole Nau­jokas in Ade­laide. ‘I am keenly aware of the words used by politi­cians and theme­dia that I be­lieve are very de­lib­er­ately cho­sen to make the poor feel like shit.’

Pho­to­graph: Kelly Barnes for the Guardian

‘The poli­cies of this govern­ment seem tore­peat­edly in­fer that I am a crim­i­nal.’

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