The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice
Bryan Stevenson – US death row attorney
FOUR years ago I moved with no great enthusiasm and a troubled child to Logan City, one of Australia’s ten poorest urban areas. Divorce had cost me my farm in northern New South Wales, and housing in Woodridge was, and remains, some of the very cheapest within striking range of the Brisbane CBD – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 96 per cent of Australian postcodes have higher socio-economic status than we Woodridgeans. The shift over the Queensland border was unwelcome, but it wasn’t frightening. I had been poor before – I had the skill set, or at least the memory of it – and more or less agreed with Orwell:
It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.
For me, Brisbane-born and partly Logan-raised, it was a case of returning to the dogs rather than meeting them for the first time. For my unwell teenager, though, it was a revelation to discover that that there are entire supermarkets which stock no bread other than sugary white pap; that smiling at strangers is often viewed here as a highly suspicious precursor to extortion; and that screams followed by sirens can become the unremarkable aural wallpaper of your urban existence. Our inaugral visit to the local shop became family legend; as we pulled up in the car, exclaiming, League of Gentlemen style, that these same establishments were to be our localshops, we were interrupted mid-recitation by a junkie hurtling out the Foodland doors to projectile vomit on the footpath not three metres away. We fell about, snorting and leaking with laughter. Ah, the serenity. Four years later that same shop was at the epicentre of the 2013 Logan City riots, three nights of fighting which saw young men armed with fence palings and baseball bats warring on your TV screen.
I had known, of course, back in 2009, that by moving to Woodridge (chosen for its proximity to the rail line and to the wonderful two thousand acres of bush that is Karawatha Forest – thanks Lord Mayor Soorley!) I was placing myself squarely in what Brisbane Aborigines refer to as the ‘Black Belt’. This is a geographic-cum-cultural entity stretching from Ipswich in the west, through Inala and Acacia Ridge, and reaching Woodridge, Kingston and Loganlea before hitting Eagleby/Beenleigh and petering out in the northern Gold Coast. This – along with select pockets like West End and Annerley – is where the Brisbane Aboriginal underclass have historically concentrated; in mainly housing commission ghettos where all the whites are poor too, ‘everyone mixes in together’ and, as one of my interviewees stated, ‘You don’t have to worry about snobs staring at you if you go to the shops in bare feet’.
So the Black Belt is where I came to live once again, my house sandwiched between two skilled labourers, and over the road from a depressed, possibly mad, invalid pensioner, and a w-hite Housing Commission family whose spray painter father leaves noisily for work at 5 am on his throbbing black Harley. There is one other Aboriginal family in this relatively quiet Woodridge street, that of seven-year-old Shanaya, whose daddy died in a car crash (‘and the cops shouldn’t even of been chasing him’) who talks non-stop, struggles at school and has a new kitten or puppy or bird to report nearly every time I see her, the life expectancy of Logan City pets being little better than that of their owners.
The poor are always with us, the Good Book says, and statistics agree: 9.5 per cent of people in the greater Brisbane area officially live below the poverty line (Australian Council of Social Services, 2011). Welfare recipients and the working poor in the Black Belt don’t necessarily realise they are hard up, however. More accurately, many don’t realise just how poor they are, since everyone in their lives is battling. In 1984, as a seventeen-year-old caring for three small kids in Eagleby, I believed that nearly all Australians lived like we did, with far too many animals, dying cars and bugger all disposable income. In most such families, being rich is the stuff of pure fantasy, and the rare relative (usually distant) who is a business owner or a professional is seen as a beacon of jaw-dropping achievement. Ali G made everyone laugh in the 2000s by suggesting that Bill Gates was so amazingly wealthy, he could supersize his McDonalds meal any time he wanted. Yet for Black Belt kids, that is exactly what being rich means: not having to worry about your next feed, and not needing the preface Please Sir for the ever-present question: Is there any more?
How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013? To answer these questions I interviewed three women who are doing it tough in the greater Brisbane area. All are mothers of four children, two of them single mothers. The partnered mum, Marie, works about twenty hours a week as a cook in an Ipswich pub. She is relatively better off than the other two women; she has her partner’s help with the kids, and some disposable income. Both Selma and Charmaine, though, struggle to find part-time work that they can juggle around childcare and full-time study. Their lives involve food parcels, great uncertainty about the future, and ongoing isolation. These are their stories. Names and some identifying details have been altered.
SELMA IS TWENTY-SEVEN years old, dark-haired, doe-eyed and slender. Her pale left arm bears a saga of old razor scarring, but when I speak to her in March Selma is bursting with toughness and intelligence – ‘I hate pity and I don’t want handouts.’ A full-time student, Selma works intermittently as her TAFE course and four children under ten allow. Their father, whom she still refers to as her partner, has spent the past decade in and out of jail, and is in long-term residential rehab for his amphetamine addiction. After many years in the Black Belt, Selma has recently moved with her four small boys to a Housing Commission house near Cleveland.
Selma’s family fled the war in Yugoslavia when she was eleven. They escaped to a primitive Croatian shack without running water, and ate ‘UNHCR food, like they have in Africa or whatever. It tasted worse than fucking dog food. We had nothing, bombed house, jack shit, but still Mum was trying to do little tiny jobs and send money back home, would you believe?’
Selma’s Croatian father’s family wouldn’t accept her Serbian mother, and her Serb mother would rather die than deny her identity. Selma gives a small dry laugh. ‘She’s like “kill me as I am, this is me”.’ Severe domestic violence between her parents was a problem. ‘He’d be off doing his crazy things, you know, trying to join the army, falling asleep in the snow, drinking, whatever. He’s a heavy drinker and he has a mental illness. I one hundred per cent believe it’s PTSD.’
When Selma’s family came to temporary refugee flats in Brisbane they were shown how to shop, how to catch trains, what Centrelink was for. ‘We didn’t know anything. I went to school in Year Five speaking no English. It was pretty embarrassing, and I had no friends. They accept you to a certain extent, but not fully. Like you’re white but you aren’t white “enough”. I was an outcast all over again.’ As a young teenager, Selma ran wild. Working two pink-collar jobs – factory by day and cleaning by night – her mother somehow found the money for Catholic School. It was there that Selma made her deepest friendship, with a Murri woman who would become her sister-in-law.
‘Our families sent us both there to “fix” us. We were best friends from the day we met. She left in Year Nine, and a year later she had her son. I left school in Year Eleven, and had my son in 2004. She wasn’t my best friend, I call her my sister.’
Selmas’ troubled friend had drug issues. This, along with poorly managed gestational diabetes, led to her losing her second pregnancy at seven months. The father is in jail, as is the father of her older, living son. A third man (‘really violent, on everything, heroin, downers, speed’) was her boyfriend at the time the baby died. Selma has deep reservations about what her friend experienced. ‘She’d been raped before, you know, and also raped as a young teenager. And at the hospital there was bruising on the inside of her thighs, here and here. I told the hospital – what are you going to do about this? – and they said, oh, we don’t know how that got there…’
Selma’s friend survived the diabetic coma that led to her baby’s death, but she lost the use of her legs. The addict boyfriend quickly vanished, and in 2012 she became isolated and lonely in her West End flat. She had ‘friends’ once a fortnight, when her dole arrived. ‘They just found her there, dead, one day. They said it was the diabetes. But when she died, she had a big sore on her head; she’d had it for months. I heard someone chucked battery acid on her. Who knows what really happened? The cops went down to Musgrave Park after she was found and they told people there about it before her family even knew. Just like you’d go, “oh, we found a dead dog, anyone missing a dog?” That’s what it felt like.’
Selma, who has been immersed in the Murri community for a decade and speaks with an impeccable Cherbourg accent, has very clear views on what befell her friend last year: ‘If she was a white girl, and had money, or her family had money, she’d be alive today. Absolutely no doubt. Probably still have her legs. Instead she’s dead at the age of twenty-seven, of diabetes, for god’s sake! Who dies of diabetes at twenty-seven?’
And where was Selma as this tragic story unfolded? For most of the past decade her life, like that of her dead friend, has been one of intractable poverty, marijuana addiction and extreme domestic violence. Mothering four boys while negotiating her partner’s speed-fuelled rage has left her exhausted. Ashamed of what she was enduring until recently, she stayed away from her mother for long stretches. She was deeply humiliated at finding herself a victim, and very fearful also that her mentally ill brother would intervene and get badly beaten. She thought it better that only she get bashed.
‘What I don’t like in society, and in TAFE in particular, is the judgments put on Indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of seventeen ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.’
She lays the blame for the violence squarely on poverty: ‘Poverty breeds hate to the other side; it breeds hate in your own little life. You are “free” but you’re not really free. You have no options.’
Like many battered women, Selma was raised in a violent home. Yet the abuse she once accepted as inevitable had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience, of always feeling like an alien in Australia, ‘feeling like a nothing piece of shit. When I was pregnant with my first son I got flogged every day. I remember I went to see my mum and I’d forgotten that he’d flogged me with a stick of bunya pine the day before. I had big black welts across the back of my legs and two black eyes. I was at least eight months pregnant – I protected the belly – and I’d forgotten the bruises were there. It was like, that was yesterday and this is today. And I remember the look on my mum’s face. I felt huge shame, like I was piss weak. Because I always felt like I had nobody and was nobody since I came here.’
By 2007 though, raising three young sons, Selma had drawn strength from her experience of mothering. She had also, incredibly, after many years of abuse, decided to fight back physically against her partner. ‘In the end I just had no more fear, because what else could he do to me that he hadn’t already done? I thought if I don’t at least try to fight back I’ll eat myself. He was chasing me with an axe this day, you know, in the zone, and I didn’t want to scream in case the coppers came. And then I just had enough. I said to him, just do it cunt, ya dead dog. If ya gonna be a big man, just do it and put me outta my misery.’
Shocked, her partner backed off. Selma went on to gradually conquer her marijuana addiction, began studying at TAFE, and was no longer imprisoned in a brick house at Annerley. She was, however, still being beaten regularly. She would fight back silently, trying to shield her sons from what was happening. Then one day school reported that her oldest boy, then seven, had wished aloud that he was dead. Selma realised the impact the violence was having.
‘It was three days of frantically doing assignments before I could leave. I jumped in the car and fucked off with nothing. No money, car on its last legs, no house, nothing. And you know, I missed the bastard. At the same time I thought, oh he’s gonna be fed and be right in jail, and I want to go to jail and have a rest. I was locked in a house for two years. I always say, you want to put me in jail? Just shut me in a room for two, three months – no problem. No fucking problem at all!’
I asked Selma what poverty means to her now. She told me she has basic food in her house, but regularly goes hungry because there isn’t enough to go around – ‘Bread in the cupboard but you can’t eat that bread cos it’s for school lunches tomorrow.’ Terrified of having her Aboriginal children removed by authorities, she feeds the four growing boys chicken and rice – ‘you get two chicken breasts and that makes two stews, pad it out with potato and pumpkin’ – but eats bread and butter for her own dinner, if she has any. Her cupboard is literally bare on payday. Toilet paper is rationed. Her car has multiple water bottles in the back; the trip in to TAFE requires at least one stop half-way to refill the boiling radiator. Selma still has a car only because her father (‘the only one in my entire family who has a credit card that’s not maxed out’) lent her the money for brakes until tax time.
‘People think, oh, you drink your money. Or it’s a “budgeting issue”. But you use your cash card once a week, on payday, and then you don’t use it again, cos it’s empty. I don’t think people realise how hard it is, not being able to provide. If I have to put my phone into hock so the kids can go on excursions then I will. Nobody rings you anyway, there’s no petrol to go anywhere and no money to do anything, so you just sit home.
‘I don’t have deadly shit in my house. My kids know not to ask for stuff, no tuckshop or anything. They know when it’s small week and when it’s big week, my nine year old knows when payday is. They know our lives aren’t some uptown, white picket fence, daddy-loves-mummy lives. I just bought my son a new mattress and now that’s the talk of the fucking town, an actual mattress, instead of a blanket on the springs.’
When I asked Selma if she had any dreams for the future, she surprised me by quoting Martin Luther King Jr: If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. She spoke of expecting to finish TAFE soon, and of desperately hoping to go to QUT to get a degree in human services. With two work placements behind her, one of them paid, she is beginning to faintly see options that never existed before. She talked of working in domestic violence services to help other women. She hopes her Aboriginal sons will finish high school. But her voice lacked certainty, and was almost wistful, in sharp contrast to when she speaks of what she has survived. ‘If I’ve learned one thing in life it’s that you never know where you’re gonna end up. Anyone can end up on drugs, in domestic violence, on the streets selling themselves. I just thank God these days it’s not me.’
MARIE IS AN attractive thirty-eight year old, with long brown hair, hazel eyes and a winning smile. Although there is Aboriginal ancestry on both sides of Marie’s family tree, she identifies as – and is seen by the world as – a white Australian. A partnered mother of four, she is one of the working poor who make up a third of Australians in poverty. Marie lives in a private rental house in Redbank Plains with her on-again, off-again partner, and with their two-year-old twin girls. She works twenty hours a week at a pub a short train ride away. Her partner is a casual supermarket night-stacker. Between them they earn around $700 a week; some of their rent is covered by Family Tax Benefit. Unlike Selma, Marie does have some disposable income after paying her rent, bills, food and transport costs.
Raised in Housing Commission homes in Woodridge and Eagleby, Marie was a very bright student. But her home life was troubled (‘Mum was a nutter, drinking all the time, and her boyfriend was feral, very violent.’) Marie was sexually active by twelve. At thirteen she began smoking marijuana. As a fourteen-year old stoner in Year Nine she not only won the Science Award, but was already living away from home with her first partner, with whom she had a daughter the following year. She left school before turning fifteen.
‘I was living independently already, and I hated being told what to do. School wanted notes from my mum and dad for shit. I said, well, my mum’s probably paralytic and I haven’t seen my dad for six weeks, but I can forge a note if you really want me to.’
Propelled by her intelligence and by the bipolar disorder that she medicates with marijuana, Marie scored a job in a Beenleigh coffee shop. Six months later, fifteen and smoking daily, she was promoted to manager. By nineteen she was running bars, work that she kept up for the next twenty years. In 2013 she has returned to pub cooking, lacking both the childcare and the energy to take up a full-time management job with two-year old twins.
Despite her grim upbringing in the Black Belt, Marie’s work history is two decades of responsible positions and a moderate income. In the post-war era, someone in her situation might have paid off most of a house by now, even with spending eighty dollars a week on the necessary quarter ounce of pot. Yet in 2013 the idea of home ownership has barely entered her mind. (‘Maybe if Travis got full-time work and we saved more…or if we win Lotto…’) Her more immediate problem on the day I interview her is severe toothache that she can’t afford to have fixed, and which the pot isn’t controlling completely.
‘I went in to the government dentist the other day to get a voucher, they line ya up like cattle. Everyone’s crying in pain, it’s like a fucking war zone. People are just about fighting to get to the counter first, eh. And it’s a different system now too, you have to ring up from the outside, and if you didn’t have a phone or any credit I don’t know what you’d do. I think they just keep ya waiting because they can.’
Equally troubling as her toothache in the medium-term is the possibility of jail. Like Selma from Yugoslavia, Marie has a history of severe emotional and physical abuse from her previous partners, who were all, bar one, white Anglo-Australian men. (‘I was pretty sick of being put through walls by footy players. I thought, I’ll pick someone smaller next time who can’t bash me, and I did.’) From the age of five until eleven, Marie was also sexually molested by her white paternal grandfather. Molestation and batterings over many years have left her emotionally damaged and extremely angry. In 2005, when Marie’s oldest child, Kylie, was ten, she revealed that she too was a victim: she told Marie that her previous partner was sexually abusing her. Marie immediately dumped the partner’s possessions on the footpath, and had the man (the father of her son) charged. He served five months of a ten-month sentence, but the charge was eventually overturned. He now has full custody of Marie’s fourteen-year-old boy, from whom she is estranged.
Marie spoke to me of feeling enormous rage about the past abuses in her life, rage which sits constantly just beneath the surface. She also fears turning into the violent partner in her current relationship. When we spoke in March, Marie was facing charges of contravening an Apprehended Violence Order taken out against her by her partner when they were last separated in November.
‘I was arguing with Travis and I’d pulled out a kitchen knife, not to attack him, I was threatening to hurt myself with it, but the cops were outside watching by then. One of them says, “I don’t like you, you’re just a smartarse,” and it’s all gone downhill from there. They charged me and reported me to Children’s Services. Legal Aid have just told me they won’t pay for my psychiatric appointment, so I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go to court, really. Children’s Services dropped it after they came out and visited, but I can’t afford a criminal record because normally I’m a manager. Do you think I’ll go to jail?’
Statistically, Marie is unlikely to go to jail for a first offence. If she keeps working and stays with Travis – and particularly if Travis finds full-time work – she may well in time be able to put a deposit on a home. If Marie’s lifelong anger overwhelms her, though, or if one of the couple’s regular separations turns into a permanent split, she is unlikely to escape her life of renting, entry-level jobs, and splurging her few disposable dollars on the working-class pleasures of Red Bull, marijuana and the pokies.
Marie told me that she has been quoted $2,000 to have her teeth fixed privately. She is therefore resigned to living with ongoing pain while she waits for the public queue to shorten. She also owes $2,000 in unpaid fines (unlicensed driving; twice failing to vote). Until she pays these fines, she must remain unlicensed; this means she can’t legally drive a car, even if she could afford to run one. Despite these circumstances, Marie doesn’t consider herself particularly poor. Everyone she knows is in the same boat, and her outlook on life is cheerfully pragmatic.
‘We’re not that poor. There’s always food in our cupboards. And we’re saving now, too. If we win more than fifty bucks on the pokies or Keno, we have this new rule that we have to put $10 of it in the tin.’
CHARMAINE IS A full-time student who lives near Beenleigh, the ragged far-northern end of the Gold Coast glitter strip. The yard of her brick house is littered with rusty bikes, an assortment of footballs, and waiting-to-be-used building materials. A derelict blue sedan sits decaying on its rims near the letterbox. The guttering, hanging on metal threads, is rusted through in more places than not. Charmaine bought the house twelve years ago while still married to Jonas, a Koori man from a New South Wales inland mission. In the ten years since she discovered he was gambling away most of their income and they split, she has managed to pay about $30,000 off the mortgage.
Blond, slim and still able to laugh despite a life that would crush most of us, 49-year-old Charmaine is the white Australian mother of four Aboriginal kids. Brown-skinned Aaron is still at home and still at school, and doing well in Year Seven despite the calls of ‘Abo’ and the paradoxical racist demands to prove his identity that he regularly cops there. A bright, engaging twelve-year-old, he has just won a full scholarship to a Brisbane private school.
Sitting in her lounge, I asked Charmaine what poverty meant to her as a single parent. She laughed – she laughs easily – and said: ‘Well, I still haven’t paid for having that last cat put down. And I had to go for emergency assistance last week to pay the power bill. Even though I turned off the hot water for the summer, that saved a lot, but you know, they’ve cut the pension down to Newstart level. I’ve negotiated not paying the mortgage for three months, and we don’t eat lunches anymore since that bright idea came in. Aaron told me the other day he was trying to learn not to be hungry, to help out… I mean what does the government want ya to fucking do? Go out and get one of those thousands of good jobs out there, jobs that single parents can do while the kids are at school? If I wasn’t carpooling he wouldn’t even makeit to school some days, cos there’s no petrol in the car half the time and there’s no public transport.’
How did Charmaine – smart, articulate, white, teetotaler – find herself in such a life? Partly by growing up in very similar circumstances. As a small girl, she remembers living at her grandparent’s, an overcrowded wooden house without ceilings or glazed windows in the scrub at Ferny Grove. Her grandfather used the bathroom as his bedroom – consequently the kids were bathed in the lounge. ‘They couldn’t work out why I used to scream when they put me into the tub for my bath. But I had constant bladder infections from what Granddad was doing to me, and the pain was excruciating when I touched the water. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t raping me.’
When she was six, Charmaine’s mother was offered a housing commission house in Stafford, closer to town, and they fled. Her mum would often walk kilometres to work in the CBD because she didn’t have the bus fare. During school holidays, six-year-old Charmaine was regularly left at home all day to mind her five-year-old brother. ‘There’d be literally nothing in the house to eat except a tin of jam. My brother and I would sit there with two spoons, trying to eat it slow as we could.’
By some miracle – and while also being molested by a new white step-father – Charmaine stayed in school until Year Twelve. As she completed her Senior Certificate in 1979 she was sixteen, working two part-time jobs in snack bars, and effectively running the household. (‘Mum would wake me up at five to feed the baby while she went to shift work.’) Charmaine almost made it to university, but her tertiary entrance score wasn’t high enough. She enrolled in night school to get a better one. It was then, still sixteen, that she met Jonas, a wild Koori boy. She had Steadman to him at eighteen, and they stayed married for the next twenty years, cycling between the Black Belt, the Gold Coast, and the mission where Jonas was born.
‘I developed OCD trying to keep him happy. You know, if the house is clean enough, if you have sex with him often enough, if the sun is sunny enough, you might not get bashed… You learn to keep your mouth shut, and hope you might go a couple of days or a week without a flogging. But oh I was a dumb ugly white cunt, I got told that every day for years until I believed it, that…and the road rages…and the way he treated the kids…complete controlling shit, you know.’
Despite the violence, Charmaine and Jonas were able to create a business marketing his art. For a few years they made good money. Then Charmaine became aware that she was raising the kids and being regularly flogged while Jonas took nearly all their income to the casino.
Charmaine finally left the marriage when her youngest, Aaron, was two, but by then the damage was substantial. She and her oldest three children all suffer PTSD. The eldest, twenty-eight-year-old Steadman, is currently back in jail, this time for aggravated assault on his girlfriend while the couple were living at Charmaine’s (‘The neighbours heard the screams – the cops came and wanted to Taser him. Thank God I was out at a school thing with Aaron, and he didn’t have to see it.’) Her oldest daughter, Sarah, lives intermittently on the Gold Coast with a violent girlfriend and a young infant. Until recently, Sarah was living with her mum, but the tension between the two women was unbearable, and Sarah left. Charmaine’s youngest daughter, twenty-two, is also transient, and currently lives at home, unemployed and depressed:
‘Last week she come up from downstairs – I had a houseful of visitors – and she goes, “I hope youse cunts are happy now, I’ve taken a whole packet of Panadol.” Aaron went down ten minutes later and said “she’s asleep”. So I’ve bolted down, rung the ambulance and they’ve told us to keep her there. Aaron and me had to fight her and sit on her to stop her running off down the street. Just crazy shit…’
Knowing that Charmaine is halfway through her honours year at university, I ask about her dreams for the future. She surprises me by saying she has always wanted to be a writer, and describes reading Aboriginal novels aloud to Aaron before he falls asleep at night (like Selma, Charmaine is determined that her children will be proud of their aboriginality). She is likely, soon, to publish an academic article based on her honours research, and her face lights up as she tells me this. Charmaine also intends selling her dilapidated house and moving closer to the city and to work. But with Jonas’s name still on the deeds, and him unwilling to co-operate in a property settlement, she is mired in the Black Belt boondocks, with no Legal Aid and no money to take the issue to court. This will become a serious problem later in the year when Aarons’ scholarship will require a move to Brisbane.
I ask her about her hopes for her kids. Charmaine – who recently organised the safe fostering of her jailed son’s two-year-old child into her extended family – pauses, and looks away into the middle distance.
‘Well, you know, I’ve got one in jail and two that are… (here she trails off and begins to cry)… I’ve fucked everyone’s life up. Sarah talks to baby like Jonas used to talk to her as a kid. It’s really horrible. I’m scared that Sarah might hurt her, but I’ve got nothing else to give. I’ve been looking after other human beings my entire life, since I was six years old, and I’m just exhausted.’
THESE THREE MOTHERS are far from a statistical sample of Brisbane’s poor. Themes did emerge, though. Underclass expectations are calibrated young, for instance. Grow up with nothing and that is what you are likely to regard as normal and even acceptable in adult life. Each woman has lived a life with some startling similarities to her mother: Charmaine, successfully keeping her youngest son in school despite having almost no food in the house for him to eat; Selma, running from regular threats to her life until she takes a near-suicidal stance to end it – ‘I’m Serbian, kill me as I am’; ‘do it, ya cunt, ya dead dog, put me outta my misery.’
The role of public housing in providing some minimal prospect of safety quickly became clear. Had Charmaine’s mother not gotten into a Housing Commission house when Charmaine was six, who knows how long her grandfather may have continued to rape her? And for Marie, the protection of a Housing Commission home with her mother in Woodridge was the promised land, compared to ongoing exposure to her grandfather’s molestation in Eagleby. Today, the Family Tax Benefit is vital in keeping her and her twins safely housed in the Ipswich private rental market.
If housing is a critical factor, so is loneliness and isolation, driving the single mums back to untenable situations time and again. Selma: ‘You might be stuck at home arguing with him, this bloke who’s about to punch your head in. But at the end of the day it’s still a conversation with someone.’
The violence and mental illness of parents and partners have played a huge part in entrenching poverty for these women. Each of the three interviewees had been battered by their former partners multiple times, and each still lives with the consequences. All three – either openly stated or by strong implication – has been molested in childhood and/or raped at least once. Poverty continues to propel the children of the poor into the houses of paedophiles and wife-bashers all over Australia, with ongoing predictable consequences: depression, anger, PTSD and suicidality. (Charmaine’s daughter: ‘I hope youse cunts are happy, I’ve just taken a whole packet of Panadol.’ Selma: ‘I’ve tried to hang myself, it’s a lot fucking harder than it looks’). Women often seek short-term relief from the violence in drug use, most often with marijuana, but also heroin, so-called party drugs and harder amphetamines; these, of course, come with their own likely trajectories of addiction, pain, mental illness and crime.
What then shall we do, we Black Belt dwellers? What hope of escape, in an Australia where the dole has now fallen far below the poverty line and this same dole is now what we expect single mothers who can’t find work to raise their children on? Orwell lived with the uber-poor of Europe in the 1930s and discovered to his surprise, writing Down and Out in Paris and London that the poor were just like himself:
The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit… Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well.
Both Selma and Charmaine know this. They have a structural analysis of their lives. Realising that poverty is a creation of society and its choices, these two women also know that their lives might shift through higher education. Selma, who cannot afford enough toilet paper and has frequently stolen food for her sons to eat, had just paid $67 to apply to QUT when I interviewed her. Charmaine, who no longer eats lunch, moved heaven and earth and called in every possible favour to get her twelve-year-old (now my godson) into a very good Brisbane secondary school sixty kilometres north of her ramshackle home.
Marie – who in Eagleby in 1984 was one of the three small children my seventeen-year-old self cared for – has no such structural analysis. Like the other two women, she is exceptionally intelligent, probably gifted, but leaving school at fourteen has left its mark. Her world view is shaped by the Black Belt pubs she works in, by Today Tonight, and by the memes of Facebook. The afternoon I spent with her was dominated by underclass humour about life in Eagleby and Ipswich, and by her understandable concern about going to jail. The role of government in shaping her life was mentioned only once, in passing, as I tried to remember the details of Denticare. Marie was interested but mystified by the processes I described: ‘So, the politicians, the Julia Gillards and the Tony Abbotts and all that – do they actually make the policies? Or do other people make them and they, like, only support them?’
I looked at her bright, questioning face which had been punched a dozen times or more since I knew her as a freckled child, and thought to myself: Good question. And I thought, too, that the Good Book is right. The poor arealways with us – unless, of course, we hook up at sixteen with the wrong sociopath, or escape from a childhood of misery with ‘just one shot’ of dole-day speed, or get divorced and lose our homes and our children their minds, and we – yes, we: Marie, Selma, Charmaine, Melissa – become the poor ourselves, and then are quickly demoted to that faceless population which Australia in 2013 finds easy to stereotype, and convenient to demonise, and ultimately, under a federal Labor government in the tenth wealthiest nation on earth, ultimately only sensible to forget.
Griffith REVIEW Edition 41: Now We Are Ten
Melissa Lucashenko’s biography and other articles by this writer