Content Disclaimer: This article contains references to assault, domestic violence and rape.
Could you survive on the bread line is a three-part SBS documentary. It follows three adults, a left-wing politician, a right-wing commentator and a Masterchef winner, as they experience what it’s like for many Australians to live with government support.
Over the course of the documentary, the three experience what it is like to survive on the same income as those on the Disability Support Pension or Newstart Allowance, to care for families on the single parent or caring for a sick family member on Carer’s Allowance and try to find work in the “gig” economy where minimum wage may not exist, few job opportunities exist and many businesses have had to cut staff or close completely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The documentary highlights the very precarious state in which the recipients of government assistance find themselves. Only one of the people visited said they could lead a decent life. This was conditional on not having an addiction that would use money, need government housing, and you would likely depend on some sort of charity for food. Caring for someone with a chronic illness at home was nearly impossible. This came at the expense of the caregiver’s health and was only possible with the support of church charities who provided free food. A teenage girl, despite her career dreams, saw no future because her single mother could never afford college fees. Being trapped in the system was all too common.
Government housing was not always safe or secure, with all tenants reporting horrendous conditions including mold so bad it was debilitating to your health, infestations of cockroaches and rats despite thorough cleaning, phone calls almost daily reports of domestic violence and multiple experiences of rape and assault inside buildings by other tenants.
All but one of the government aid recipients suggested they were struggling to survive and the constant stress of finances and budgeting left them with little mental capacity for anything else. Yet they must continue, often for the good of others.
The documentary raises many questions, including “is it their fault that they need government help”? The answer is “no” for everyone included in all three episodes. They were born with debilitating disabilities, were victims of such violent assaults that left them with severe mental and physical disabilities, or lost jobs and businesses to things like Covid-19.
The reality is that the “system” far too often keeps people in need of social assistance, and therefore, in poverty. What is this “system”? Business journalist George Monbiot gives a brief introduction to neoliberalism in his article Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems. At its core, neoliberalism is defined as a political approach that favors free market capitalism, deregulation, and cuts in public spending. What has resulted, however, is the growing gap between rich and poor, with extreme wealth in the hands of the few and the poor being blamed and even punished for their plight.
Researcher and author Susan George criticizes neoliberalism in her 1999 speech A brief history of neoliberalism:
“…neo-liberalism has become the leading world religion with its dogmatic doctrine, its priesthood, its legislative institutions and, perhaps most important of all, its hell for pagans and sinners who dare to challenge revealed truth…For the neo-liberal, the market is so wise and so good that like God, the Invisible Hand can bring good out of apparent evil… People are unequal by nature, but that’s good because the contributions of the well-born, the best educated, most difficult, will ultimately benefit everyone. Nothing in particular is due to the weak, the poorly educated: what happens to them is their fault, never the fault of society.
Is this system a system that God would approve of? In Leviticus 19:9-18 there are instructions on how to treat others with particular reference to the poor. These include not stealing from others, dealing fairly with neighbors, and acting justly. One of the most striking instructions, however, relates to work and food. The Israelites were instructed to always leave the edges of fields and vineyards unharvested. It was specifically so that the poor could have food. Importantly, this gave dignity to the poor, as they were engaged in the same work as everyone else on the ground. It also meant that they could eat the same food as others. This leveling of the playing field contrasts sharply with the realities of the current practice of neoliberalism.
Could Christianity offer an alternative to neoliberalism that offers fairness and justice for all, a fairer distribution of wealth and dignity for humanity?
Dr. Katherine Grocott