Life on the breadline: It’s a relentless daily struggle to not feel...

Life on the breadline: It’s a relentless daily struggle to not feel bad about yourself | Nijole Naujokas

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Name: Nijole Naujokas

Age: 34

Lives: Adelaide

Turning point: Not so much a turning point as a slow realisation over many years that I’m unable to work consistently due to ill health

After housing costs has to live on: $169.03 a week

Writing about being on Centrelink payments is a frightening prospect. I am very aware of the possible judgment and backlash I may get, so strong are the ideas in this society that I am “on a beach somewhere” laughing at others who are working.

It is not a pleasant experience to constantly be labelled a “dole bludger”, a “leaner”, “lazy”, “job snob” and all the other names used by media personalities and politicians. These names chip at my self-esteem, they yank at my self-worth, and they tear at my very identity.

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I have been dealing with Centrelink for nine years, on and off. I am, to put it crudely, a veteran of the mind-numbing bureaucracy that is this country’s “human services”. This is not to mean that I have not worked in the past. I have, multiple times and in multiple jobs. In the past I have been an office worker opening mail, a massage therapist and a childcare worker, but my arthritis made it very difficult to do full-time work. I was also diagnosed with endometriosis last year, which can give me overwhelming fatigue and pain that makes it very difficult to do everyday tasks. I have been in the system long enough to know the crushing realities and the endemic disrespect of the process.

It’s not just going through Centrelink – just going to the supermarket can be crushing. The daily grind of agonising over small decisions that most people would not have a second thought about is relentless. Life becomes a series of endless justifications, one after the other. It is navigating a thousand different decisions and spending ridiculous amounts of time on deciding purchases. If I buy these new shoes, which are necessary, can I afford my electricity bill next week? If I spend this amount of money, can I put petrol in my car? If I buy this meat, which is better quality, will I have enough money for food for the rest of the week?

A little while ago I had a friend’s birthday celebration and, while shopping, I looked at a box of gourmet crackers that cost $6.50. I stood there in the supermarket looking at this box of crackers, thinking, “I would like to treat myself.” I don’t normally spend that amount on crackers and I stood for a long time staring at the box. And then, after I bought them, I had this bizarre pang of guilt. I berated my extravagance and indulgence, even though it was a special occasion. “Why am I spending $6.50 on fancy crackers? Why didn’t I buy the home brand?” Well, I bought the fancy crackers for the same reason that you probably buy fancy crackers, because you want something that tastes nice and is out of the ordinary.

These little things that make life bearable are completely denied to people on Centrelink payments, who are seen as not deserving of small pleasures. I think this is why I felt so guilty about my $6.50 crackers. In the scheme of things, they were delicious and I enjoyed them very much. But there was a period of time walking to the car and driving home where I equally berated myself for buying them, and also chastised myself for being ridiculous. And this internal war of what we should and should not have is ever-present for people living below the poverty line.

Nijole Naujokas in Wellington Park, Adelaide

Nijole Naujokas in Wellington Park, Adelaide. Photograph: Kelly Barnes for the Guardian

Even in the poverty online communities that are supposed to be supportive you will still get judgment about women who dye their hair, have nice clothes, or have nails that don’t look natural. Never mind that it’s possible to get hair dye boxes for a dollar, do your own nails or get clothes as a present.

There is a certain “tut-tut, why is she spending her money on that?” And this is a very tacit, underhanded way of keeping people in their place. You want to take pride in your appearance, you want to blend in and be normal, but then when you start talking about poverty, that slight comfort is not seen by others to be your right.

You start getting questioned on all the things that you have that are visible, which people assume you have spent quote “their hard-earned tax dollars on” unquote. It’s a relentless daily struggle to not feel bad about yourself when everywhere you turn you are being told by media and society that you don’t deserve to have any comfort, any safety, any kind of dignity. When you try to look nice, people start saying you’ve wasted your money on clothing. Poverty is basically an invitation to everyone who has a job to cast judgment on your life. We can either look poor and disgust you or blend in and earn your suspicion and mistrust. What do you want us to look like? You can’t have it both ways.

Poverty is being aware of every cent you spend. Recently I bought medicine at a pharmacy. I was charged a higher price than normal for my medication. I had bought this medication before and I had not had to pay an increase but my query was met by a disdainful pharmacist: young, attractive and completely full of resentment for my questioning him. He looked at me and I could almost hear his internal “pfft” at my quibbling over the price. With thinly veiled superiority he said: “You know in Australia, we’re lucky to have medication that is subsidised, you know? Look, you’re lucky that you’re getting this subsidised medication at all.”

I felt rage rise within me which I quickly quelled, and I looked at him and said: “I don’t need to be lectured on how good we have it in this country – I already know.” He shook his head and finished the transaction and, as I walked away, the rage returned. I couldn’t describe what I was feeling. Here I was seen at the counter as someone who was “ungrateful” for her subsidised medication, who was being a difficult customer, because I quibbled over a $2 increase in my fee for medication.

What this pharmacist fails to understand is that I must meticulously plan my purchases. If I spend more than $40 on groceries a week, I start to get very anxious. I plan and have discretionary funds but, when you are in a constant state of fear about your finances, every cent is important. It is not me trying to be spoilt or difficult. It is me trying to live on a payment that is woefully below the poverty line.

There is a massive silence in this country from unemployed people owing to the fear that they are seen as spoilt, ungrateful and unappreciative of the help from Australian society when this is just not the case. In reality, everyone I know who is either on the disability pension, a single-parent pension or the Newstart payment, is incredibly grateful to be getting money to live on.

What people do not want is your judgment. They do not want you whispering behind their back about a nice bag that they have, or your opinion on their shopping cart and how they should spend their meagre allowance. Australians need to think. Next time you meet someone unemployed, will it be with derision and judgment? Or will you look and realise that you too, could one day be in the same position, and elect to make their day a little bit less soul-destroying?

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