You Got 40 Cents?

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This article is part of newmatilda.com‘s Urban Intervention experiment. For more information read this. 

Day Twelve

I’m heading to Central station today so in anticipation of transit police I buy a ticket. That leaves me with $15.60. I meet an old friend who’s a graffiti artist; he’s brought along someone in his "crew". He wants to have a drink.

I spend my last note — a fiver — on a beer and sit down. My mate, it turns out, was squatting in Melbourne last year. He got done by the police and has over a grand in fines and nowhere to live full-time in Sydney. His buddy was in Silverwater jail last year for three months and then spent another six under house-arrest. When we finish our first beers they buy not one, but two jugs for the three of us.

I’m doing some shitty little experiment and I have to look at these two guys and tell them I can’t buy them a round. Of course they laugh it off and keep pouring me schooners, but their generosity only makes me feel even more like a bastard.

I’m a coddled, protected, privileged little poser. I pathetically buy my friend a single glass of whichever piss for $4.60 and leave.

I walk home to save money for tomorrow. I’m going to have to head into newmatilda.com over the next couple of days, and all I have is $6. I buy two cans of tuna, some bread and Vegemite on the way home, which pretty much polishes off my tab of quarantined money at the grocery store.

Days Thirteen and Fourteen

In to newmatilda.com where I eat some over-ripe bananas for lunch. There’s only one more day to go and I’m finishing off the articles.

When I started I was 66.5 kilos. Today I weigh just over 64 kilos. Yes, in many ways the weight loss has been my fault for putting myself in situations where I was likely to misspend my money and separating myself from my fridge full of food. But without doing so, would it be possible for me to have a social life at all under these restrictions?

I’ve only been eating carbohydrates really — meat and fresh fruit have been a rarity. Constant anxiety over money, guilt (mostly for not buying my share of the drinks) and boredom mean I’m not relaxed with people.

Yet it has only been two weeks, and my discomfort during this simulation pales in comparison to the genuine experience of life for an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory.

Of course, there are the cultural and social conditions that I wouldn’t claim to be able to experience, but there are also many tangible circumstances that it was not possible to simulate during this experiment.

Life for the average Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory can be pretty damn hard. For starters, because of the extreme housing shortage, you could be living with anywhere between a couple of roommates and 15 or more. Apart from the cramped living conditions, depending on who you live with you might get harassed, be deprived of sleep or have your food and cash stolen. Even if you’re living with good housemates, "people come and help themselves", said one Alice Springs social worker I spoke to, referring to some of the groups that periodically blow through the town camps. Police can also search your home at anytime, day or night.

Then there is education: low literacy and numeracy is, in itself, a hurdle to living comfortably on a low income, but many people also lack savvy when it comes to negotiating consumer society. "When you think about your supermarket shop, you know what’s a bit of a scam [and]what’s a bargain", the social worker said to me. "You don’t buy all the chocolate bars that are marketed to you right at the end. You also have a proper kitchen."

Of course there are plenty of people who manage their money well, who buy raw ingredients and cook properly to save money and have healthy diets. But for those who are still adapting to consumer society there’s a real threat of budgets blowing out in the first few days of the fortnightly welfare cycle. These are disadvantages I hadn’t considered.

"A lot of people skip meals", the social worker told me, and are forced to depend on people who have just received their cheques or on those who have budgeted more effectively. It must put a lot of pressure on social relations. I think about feeling obliged to buy my friend a glass of beer.

Oh, and as far as the alcohol ban in prescribed areas is concerned, we were told that in some town camps the ban is "unenforceable" and that "really heavy drinking" continues in the worst areas.

There are plenty of stories if you care to go find them.

To those who say these circumstances are not a result of the Intervention, I would say: this policy should be judged not only for
what it does, but also for what it has failed to do. At great expense the
Intervention has so far failed to address the health, housing, crime and
education crises in Aboriginal communities across the Northern
Territory.

This Urban Intervention series has been as much a platform for discussion as a collection of articles and it has certainly drawn some strong comments. Only good can come of that — it is the disturbing absence of debate and awareness about the impacts of the Intervention on people’s lives that inspired us to undertake this experiment in the first place.

As a re-creation of life under the Intervention, this project would be a complete failure. But that was not its purpose. We pursued this in order to remind the affluent, city-dwellers of Australia that even without the entrenched disadvantage that Indigenous Australians face, it is extremely difficult to lead a functional existence on a low and restricted income.

With all my privileges — my inner-city flat, my middle class friends and my electric toothbrush — in only two weeks, I feel like shit. I would not continue for another fortnight let alone another year.

If you believe you could, I encourage you to try.

But if you fail, ask why the people who are most in need of targeted assistance in this country are being treated as an homogenous group and judged according to the lowest common denominator. Ask whether the millions of dollars that are spent on administering the income management scheme alone could not be better spent.

When I finish at midday on the final day I have 40 cents in my pocket.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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