For one thing, it’s relative.
I have a roof over my head and enough clothes to wear. I eat three meals a day and sleep in a comfortable bed at night. Compared with millions of other people in the world, I’m rich. When I add that I’m surrounded by shelves of books, have paintings on my walls, and that our household maintains two cats, two computers and one car as well as two people – surely, by some standards, I live in luxury!
Measured by other criteria, too, I’m positively wealthy. I’m married to a man I love, who loves me. My children are all living healthy and productive lives doing the work of their choice. Most of them are in happy relationships with people they love, and all of them have good friends and enough money. I myself have an abundance of wonderful friends, and I live in one of the most beautiful regions in Australia. My health is good. I earn money only in occupations I truly enjoy. So what would I know of poverty?
As I said, it’s relative. When I was a University student in my twenties, existing on a Commonwealth Scholarship and sharing a house in a low-rent area with a couple of other young women, there were times I lived on sixpence-worth of mincemeat and one lettuce per week, and I shared the mincemeat with my cat. Well yes, sixpence did buy a lot more than it does now! In fact we’ve had decimal currency for a long time; it was equivalent to five cents. And that was long before I found out that iceberg lettuce has no real nutrition. I thought I was taking care of my health by eating protein plus a green leafy vegetable. A friend used to give me oranges, and various friends used to sometimes invite me for meals. At the end of one year I pawned most of my textbooks and was never able to redeem them. I still regret letting go of the beautiful Lavengro by George Borrow, a book that’s not heard of any more.
I was poor enough to steal. (Not that that’s an excuse, but it says a lot about my circumstances, not to mention my character.) That was in the days of milk deliveries. I used to go around the back lanes with one of the girls I shared the house with, and nick bottles of milk sitting on doorsteps. If there were two or more bottles, we would take one, and that lasted us a few days. Then we’d pick a different doorstep next time.
Where were my parents, you ask? In different cities far away. My Dad lived near Mildura, my Mum in Launceston, and I was in Melbourne. If they’d been close enough to see what was going on, things might have been different. But I didn’t tell them. A dear aunt in a Melbourne suburb, my ‘second Mum’, didn’t realise either. However I did have that back up if I’d chosen to use it. That’s not true poverty, is it? Even then I had the roof, the clothes (which my parents bought me) and three meals a day even if they were rather strange and frugal meals. And my studies were paid for by the Government.
The next time in my life that things became frugal was when I separated from my first husband at the age of 25. That wasn’t so much because of lacking money – I had my first job as a librarian then – but more because I had never learned how to manage it. I didn’t have a clue. So once again I skimped on food. If I didn’t pay the rent, I’d lose my home. If I didn’t have the bus fare, I wouldn’t get to work. But I could juggle the eating. We used to hear a lot in those days about poor people living on pet food because it was cheaper. I never did that. Pet food was for my cat! (There’s nearly always a cat – or two.) But I’ll never forget the day I found an orange in the gutter. Someone must have just dropped it. It was huge and fresh and bright. It was sweet and full of juice. I thought I was blessed by heaven! I didn’t feel poor on that occasion; I felt rich! (Wealth is relative too.)
Now my husband and I live on the Age Pension. ‘Single pensioners are doing it tough,’ everyone agrees. ‘So are married pensioners in the private rental market,’ observed a Government Minister on TV recently. That’s us! (There’s a long, long waiting list for public housing.) At present, half our income goes on rent, and the rent is going up in a few weeks. No use looking for something cheaper – rents are high everywhere and rental properties are in huge demand. We’re allowed to earn a small amount above the pension, and we do. Also we get a few perks – travel concessions, discounts on prescription medicines, and so forth. As Seniors we qualify for other discounts at some stores and businesses. With all that, there’s nothing over for extras by the time we feed ourselves, run the car, and pay our electricity and phone bills. We buy our clothes at the local op shop – fortunately a very good one – except for shoes; we save up for them. Occasionally we have to ask the Powers That Be for a food voucher, courtesy of Vinnie’s (St Vincent de Paul). We’re grateful that’s available, and long ago gave up being embarrassed about it. There’s no room for false pride on the pension! The people who issue the vouchers tell us we’re not alone. They say they always get a big rush on food vouchers at the start of the school year, when struggling parents have to part out for school clothes and textbooks. I’m glad I don’t have that problem!
When I was married to my second husband, we were able to send our kids to private school. We had a big house in a relatively (that word again!) affluent suburb. We had a swimming pool and spa, and we threw (relatively) lavish parties – lavish in our book, anyway, though we did our own cleaning and catering. We travelled to Bali several times, and around most of Australia. I worked part-time because I didn’t need full-time income and I wanted to be home with my kids after school. Mind you, there was the time early on when he broke his leg and couldn’t work for three months, and we had two toddlers. He was a self-employed abalone diver; his wages didn’t keep coming in while he was off work. But his mates among the professional fishermen kept us in seafood. I’m here to tell you it IS possible to get sick of eating crayfish, after about three months ... but this hardly counts as doing it hard. It wasn’t until the kids were grown up and no longer living at home that we lost everything and went bankrupt! It was the time of 'the recession we had to have' when banks first encouraged people to borrow big and then tightened the screws. (Many years later I cheered the revenge movie The Bank as if it had really happened.) Not coincidentally, that marriage broke up at the same time. We’d grown apart, and the financial stresses didn’t help.
I was still bankrupt when I met my third and present husband. He was self-employed and in the last throes of paying off huge debts so as to avoid bankruptcy. Nevertheless we managed to find a nice little flat in Brighton, Melbourne, another relatively affluent suburb, and run two cars (no cats at that time, and only one computer). We were very happy. Someone offered him a well-paid job and he accepted gladly. I was able to go off unemployment benefits, or Job Search Allowance as it’s now called, and stop looking for ridiculously unsuitable jobs. I was free to teach Reiki, do psychic readings and healing sessions, all from home, and teach creative writing courses at TAFE Colleges. When we first moved to the Mt Warning Caldera, where we still live, rents were so low that Andrew said, ‘I can afford to retire and go on the pension!’
That was 15 years ago, and the pension has to stretch a lot further now. The computers are old and slow and the car is falling apart. The current cats are well fed, though. And so are we, albeit frugally at times. (I learnt from the local Krishna devotees to do a mean veggie dhal!) On the whole, I greatly enjoy my life. We don’t get to the movies much any more, but the local DVD shop rents new releases for half price on Tuesdays. We’ve got a great creek to swim in. The garage we‘ve been dealing with for some years says we can pay off the work our car so desperately needs. Our kids have helped out a lot over the years. And we had a couple of windfalls. We didn’t want my Mum or my brother-in-law to die – but when they went and did it anyway, we were grateful indeed for the inheritances they left us. My Mum (posthumously) shouted us an unforgettable trip around the world in 1998. My brother-in-law bought us an extremely comfortable new bed that was badly needed, and financed the publication of my ‘new and selected’ poems so I had a book to take to Texas when I was invited there for poetry festivals in 2006. My dear friends rallied around and did fund-raising to help me get the plane fare together. I can’t really say I’ve had a deprived life!
And now? The constant stress of exceedingly slow computers, to two writers who use them all the time, can’t be healthy! A friend who’s visiting us just now is a Mac expert and, on the basis of what we actually do on our machines, reckons we need a 24-inch iMac each. It seemed like an enormous challenge. Well whaddya know, the Government is about to give pensioners a big pre-Christmas ‘stimulus package’ which will go a long way towards the cost of one of those computers! We’re still cogitating on how to pay for the other without waiting years to collect it – but nothing’s impossible; my life has taught me that.
There are times when I’ve struggled and done without, other times when I’ve lived very well indeed. All my husbands and I always had to work for our money, like our parents before us, and I can justify my pension by all the taxes I paid in previous decades. ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,’ said some famous person whose name escapes me, ‘And rich is better.’ Well I’ve been comfortable and I’ve been a battler, and happiness has little to do with either state. I’ve been well-to-do and miserable, struggling and happy – and vice-versa at times. I’ve had episodes of being worried and scared; and more of them when I was – relatively – affluent. The more you have, the more you stand to lose.
But poor? I think of beggars I saw in Calcutta, street children in Peru, TV images of people dying in famines. No, I’ve never been poor!