By Meg Webb, Manager SARC
When you are living in poverty it is a defining part of your life every minute of every day.
It defines where you live, what and how much you can eat, what you wear, whether you are warm or cold, how you can socialise, how you are able to present yourself to the world, whether or not you can meet your children’s basic needs, and, most damaging of all, how you feel about yourself.
You don’t get a weekend break from living in poverty. You certainly don’t get any annual holidays, or even time off for good behaviour. You live it every minute, of every day.
Entering poverty can happen surprisingly easily and fast. The combination of a couple of significant life events such as a relationship breakdown, the loss of a job, and a serious health issue can be all that is standing between any one of us and poverty.
But, once there, the way out of poverty is crowded with barriers and challenges that can seem insurmountable; not least because so many of them are beyond the control of the person themselves. They are structural barriers, such as the way we design our social safety net and the support we offer those who are struggling, or the severe lack of affordable housing in our community for those on very low incomes, or the lack of employment opportunities that are available as industries change and economies wax and wane.
There is also the hidden barrier of stigma; personal and community attitudes that judge others for the circumstances in which they live. It is all too easy to fall into assumptions about ‘us’ and ‘them’. To focus on differences rather than common humanity. To believe in those negative stereotypes which ignore the personal, individual stories and circumstances which make up the lives of each of our fellow Tasmanians.
In recent years, our nation’s leaders have actively encouraged us to blame the most disadvantaged for their own circumstances. Like heavy-handed parents, they have characterised people who are our neighbours, who are members of our family, who may very well be us, as deficient and in need of correction and punishment in order to deserve our support. These leaders of our nation, who should be building our community on the strength of our connectedness and shared aspiration, are instead actively dividing us. And it harms us all to be so.
Our social safety net is being torn apart. That net is the agreement we have made together as a community to contribute according to our means to ensure that everyone can be given support if and when they are in need of it. That net no longer offers safety. More and more people are falling through it, and instead of finding help to bounce back to better circumstances, they are caught and held in a poverty trap. We didn’t create one of the most generous and well-targeted social support systems in the world to have it broken apart and diminished in this way.
Across Australia, this week is Anti Poverty Week. The purpose of Anti Poverty Week is to strengthen our understanding of the causes and impact of poverty in our community. It is a perfect time to think about our own attitudes to those who are most vulnerable in our communities, and to ask ourselves whether the attitudes and actions of our leaders reflect what we want for each other.
The week aims to encourage discussion and inspire action by individuals, communities, organisations and government to help end poverty. There is no one solution or answer, no magic wand to be waved to achieve this. We know that it is only through shared effort, shared responsibility and a shared vision of a happier, healthier, more connected community that we will make progress. I invite you to join me in that effort.