My youngest daughter the Little Chef has just left home. I’m coping with the grief by colonising her room and filling it with all my mouldering old newspapers, notebooks and boxes of letters – the detritus of Girl Reporting which one day will be gone through and sorted. One day… In the process I found an old notebook containing the following simple and rather stark calculation:
$840 (income) – $430 (rent) – $200 (groceries) – $100 (phone, electricity, internet) = $110 spending per fortnight.
And then, the observation: “Not much fun potential there.”
The sums go on, drilling away at that $110 to include pocket money, bus fares and the like until all that’s left over is $35, or $2.50 a day. “Even grimmer,” I wrote.
My little book of sums dates from the time I washed up in Brisbane, a newly single mum with two daughters and not much else and the year I spent totally reliant on the goodwill of the state. It was a time when the smallest difference – an increase in bus fares, for example – in any of those numbers had a huge impact.
The notebook continues, recording the daily struggles to cope with text books and uniforms, school camps, birthdays, etc. When I returned to work the sums became more complicated – casual office temping and cleaning earnings annualised by Centrelink each fortnight as if they were permanent changes to my income so ‘off’ weeks were yawning chasms of hardship, making it seem at times as though it would be easier if I just didn’t try.
That was all a long time ago for me but it’s a daily reality for anyone struggling to manage a low, fixed income. While flinty-hearted Australians will be pleased to learn there was no room for fun on their dollar, there wasn’t a lot of space for lofty reflections on the burden I was placing on the nation either.
There’s an argument to be made that the nation’s investment in me resulted in a pretty good return – not one taxpayer in today’s money, but four if you include the present Mr Baxter who wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t lured him to our boundless plains with my feminine wiles.
It’s an argument Joseph Stiglitz is making during his current tour of Australia, as reported in the Australian Financial Review.
“Spending money on health, education, making sure that the bottom half of your population, the children, have the nutrition, health and education to be more productive and live up to their potential, seems to me to be first order investments for any society,” he said.
Stiglitz is bemused that Australia, which breezed through the Global Financial Crisis and has just recorded an all-time high in household wealth, is hell-bent on slashing these investments in our young people who, after all, are the wealth generators of our future.
It doesn’t seem sensible to deal with the challenges of an ageing population by making it simultaneously harder for older Australians to live comfortably while making it more difficult for young people to take their productive place in our society with a decent education and reasonable employment prospects.
We’ve got big challenges ahead for our nation and it’s the job of our policy makers to recognise them and come up with ways to meet them. Bashing the vulnerable is a strategy which might appeal to a certain section of the population but it’s not one that encourages the long-term vision that we probably need.
The trouble is, when you’re vulnerable you haven’t got the time or the space to spend on the big issues. When I look over my old book of sums and that $2.50 a day and all the things it had to cover, the thing I remember most is my dread that the Little Chef would want a cup of potato gems on the way home from school.
When something like a potato-based snack looms as a serious hit on the bottom line, it is not helpful to a person’s financial or mental well-being to turn the light at the end of the tunnel into an incoming train.
There have been several changes since then to the largesse distributed by the state, none of them intended to improve the lot of the vulnerable, and there are even harsher changes to come, many designed with a deliberate punitive element.
Let me assure the nation that being on a low, fixed income is already pretty punishing. Making it harder to live day to day doesn’t do anything to make it easier to pull yourself up. All it does is increase your vulnerability and leave you open to exploitation.
That’s not my vision of the Lucky Country. Is it yours?
Joseph Stiglitz tells Tony Abbott to spend more – Australian Financial Review
© Sally Baxter 2014