The 35 dollar a day challenge
Quietly, quietly on January 1st, and with barely a murmur of concern or outrage, the Labor party – the once were warriors of the working class and aspirational poor – shifted some 100 000 single parents (by which you can read almost exclusively 'single mothers') on to the Newstart Allowance. For most of them, this involves a pay cut of somewhere between $60 and $100 a week. And why? So Labor could pursue a budget surplus which not a single economist or policy expert has ever said we needed and which they now, after avoiding the inevitable for more than a year, have abandoned entirely.
And yet, the single parents remain hung out to dry. Families Minister Jenny Macklin was even heard to opine that she could indeed survive on $35 a day, and this from a woman who earns $900 in the same 24 hour period. Maybe she just feels a bit more relaxed about it because her own children are fully grown. Perhaps they could lend her some money in a pinch. The Greens decided to up the stakes by challenging her to do this for a week alongside their own Adam Bandt, which is much of a muchness as far as modern political theatre goes, but it remains a quite astounding faux pas – although one notable primarily for the fact that it directed any attention whatsoever toward this unnecessarily cruel shift in national policy.
Now, of all the many tragic abasements of the modern Labor Party, surely it does not get much worse than this. Single parents? Really? I mean, I used to be a uni student and we would bitch incessantly (and justifiably) about the minuscule allowances of modern welfare, but at least we were young, healthy and had about as much financial obligation as your average patch of moss. But even we had a union to bitch and moan on our behalf. The single parents in our midst aren't quite so lucky. Because who's arguing for them? Charities? Ain't nothing going to make a modern Australian turn off quite like hearing a charity telling them what to think. The problem is, these days we hear single parent and we think "poor life choices/probably blows all her money on ciggies/having babies to get cash from the government/welfare cheat". Even if we don't think those specific things, we've grown up in a culture where single parenthood is overtly maligned, to the point where arguing for more support for single parents would probably be considered politically toxic.
Yet, as the old adage goes, what are we as a society except for the way that we treat our most vulnerable people? And here I'm not even talking about the single parents themselves, but rather the entirely dependent children they have responsibility for. Kids who need food/comfort/shelter/transport/schooling/clothes/a modicum of the life that the rest of us took for granted. How exactly does any of that fit into an amount of money that wouldn't even stretch to buying a week's worth of fresh produce?
The problem with $35 a day is that it actually sounds like quite a bit. Obviously it's not Sultan of Brunei style riches, but the concept of $35, a small stack of notes sitting in your hand, feels like a reasonable amount. You could buy all sorts of things with $35. Like a meal. A tram ticket. Maybe even have something left over to give to the guy asking for money outside a McDonalds. Hell, we hear all the time about people in far-flung African nations subsisting on $1-a-day. What are we complaining about?
But when you break it down, $35 becomes an almost comically small amount. For instance, I'm a young, unmarried, dependent-free male and as I sit down to write this piece at 10.30 in the morning, I have already spent $29 on daily rent for a room in my ramshackle terrace house that I share with three other people. I then decided to buy a coffee which almost takes me over the edge and definitely doesn't leave enough for a tram ticket. The other $2.50 I would probably blow on a bag of pasta, which I could survive on for a couple of days, if I seasoned it only with salty tears.
However I imagine I could, if I needed to and didn't care about the massive hit to my quality of life, survive on $35 a day. I could move to a distant suburb, where the rents are more affordable, and live away from work opportunities and the support networks of family and friends. Not having a car, mobility would become a defining factor of my existence, walking and public transport consuming over two hours and $11.84 each day. I would become newly enthusiastic about instant coffee. Leisure would be a long distant memory, cent-by-cent savings plans a new nighttime activity. Still, I could do it, for a while. Such are the benefits of being young, unmarried and dependent-free. If I had two, or three children? The mind shudders.
[I actually did, a few years back, go on to Newstart for six months. I was unable to work or study due to illness so was shifted on to the Newstart – Incapacitated category of payments. Having moved back in with my parents, which covered rent, bills and petrol, I actually lived a relatively comfortable existence, but it was still a rare fortnight that I didn't find myself watching my bank balance in the hours before new money arrived.]
We spend a lot of time, as a society, fulminating over what's good and bad for our children. This is only natural. Societies are, more or less, structured around the idea of having kids and then protecting them for long enough that they can become the next generation of said society. Yet so often these discussions operate in abstract realms, where the debate reduces down to questions of ideology or instinct – see contemporary arguments about sexualisation or the digital world – while the practical problems of raising and protecting our children as a whole is left in the dust.
Much of this is surely a symptom of privilege. We are so rich and so generally well-off that the problem of impoverishment itself has become largely abstract. Due to lack of social and financial support, single parents find themselves pushed out into invisible suburbs, where opportunities are less and escape becomes ever harder. They're the sorts of suburbs where we can safely ignore them, or cluster them into a vague demographic group, all the same brand of welfare dependent no-hopers, completely oblivious to the myriad of reasons why someone might end up a single, unemployed parent. The abusive spouse. The unexpected death. The vanished partner. The disabled child.
And even if they were the worst of the stereotypes, would that justify stripping money from them? Or, more specifically, stripping money from the children that rely on them? I think not. We are, as far as the world's nations go, abominably wealthy. Despite global financial chaos, our economy continues to grow at a healthy clip. We in all likelihood have more people living a better quality of life with more safety nets than almost anybody else on this planet, or for that matter in history. But if we, with this almost absurd shared wealth behind us, cannot even find the money to help single parents and their children live above the poverty line, then what is it all worth? We're not Greece, so poor and debt-laden that we cannot even run our government. We have the money. We are instead making an active choice to arbitrarily punish some of our most needy citizens just so that the rest of us can feel richer. And maybe it's just me, but I think that to leave our most vulnerable children behind in a time of plenty bankrupts us a society and makes a hollow joke of our pretensions toward enlightenment. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but we ignore this too easily.
$35 a day. Could you cope?