Life on the breadline: 'I am sick and tired of trying to be a cheerful poor person'
Name: Nijole Naujokas
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.
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The absolute lack of power that one feels when living on Newstart is crushing
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.’
‘The policies of this government seem torepeatedly infer that I am a criminal.’