For Jenni, Damon and Cass, Teneisha and Flynn, Erin and Eric, Niah and Zali, and for our friends.
HOW RICH ARE YOU?
“I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” I could do nothing about his lack of feet, but I would work my arse off to get some shoes.
I know what poverty is. I’ve lived with it.
Many people see poverty as a lack of money, but it’s much, much more than that.
Poverty is relative.
Poverty is a human disease.
Poverty is a social construct.
Poverty is a political tool.
Poverty is a depletion of the soul.
As a child, as an adolescent and as a young adult, I had little or no money. On a scale of one to ten, with one being destitute and ten being financially sound, I fluctuated between two and three.
My father having sought greener, and less challenging pastures, and my mother being a single parent to three children, two of whom lived with disabilities, Social Services eventually provided our sole source of income, and some financial stability entered our lives. Prior to that we often waited in vain for the postman to bring the maintenance payment which my father was obliged to make each fortnight, under the terms of his divorce from my mother. All too often the payment never came and all too often the cupboard was bare.
Compared to most of my peers at school I was poor, but, as my mother often took pains to point out, we were a lot better off than the millions of starving kids in India who would be only too grateful for the pieces of toast with dripping and salt which my siblings and I were eating. So we were “money poor”.
We were also “asset poor”, owning nothing other than the clothes we wore and the mostly second-hand furniture in our too-small Housing Commission dwelling.
Time, however, was most often abundant and this in some ways became a contributor to my perception of our poverty, since, aside from the books which I borrowed from the school library and read assiduously, there was little other recreation to be had. My mother did her best to fill our time with worthwhile activity. She scrounged enough money to buy me a cheap pair of football boots so that I could play soccer for my local church team, who provided everything else, and she got hold of a second hand uniform so that I could join the Church of England Boys’ Society, a less dynamic but more affordable alternative to Scouts. My siblings, due to their disabilities, were less fortunate than I.
If this were a typical melodrama I would now talk about the fact that “although we had nothing, we had each other, and a house full of peace and love”, but I don’t talk bullshit as a rule.
In addition to our compromised financial straits, we possessed an essentially dysfunctional and destructive family environment.
My mother suffered from undiagnosed depression and anxiety, which, for many years, she self-medicated with “headache powders”, occasional cigarettes and, in rare instances, alcohol. My brother, five years older than me and legally blind, had suffered emotional trauma as a result of his disability and our father’s departure, and was primed for the exploitation which would eventually lead to his anti-social behaviour and criminal convictions. My two-years younger sister appeared to be less affected by the absence of her father, but was similarly handicapped by her legal blindness and probable depression.
I was a prime target for bullying at school (not a lot, but enough to create an on-going fear), being skinny, bespectacled, clever and having a “girl’s name”. At home I fast became the adult, from the age of nine or ten managing our limited finances and performing tasks which no-one else could.
I don’t know if I loved my siblings, or my mother. I couldn’t tell. Life was usually bad, when it wasn’t shit, but although I knew that I was better off than the starving millions of Indian kids, or the five kids who lived two doors down, whose father came home pissed out of his brain most days and bashed them and their mother senseless, it was no consolation to me. I knew that the answer to my problems lay in escaping poverty by earning money, and I decided that, once I had removed myself from my deplorable family situation, I would make sure that I would never be poor again.
I succeeded, but in an entirely unpredictable way.
Poverty is a disease which afflicts a significant portion of our society, but unlike some diseases it can be totally cured. In my view the answer to all social malaise is education – not just schooling, which in its own way contributes to the current deplorable status quo – but true education through which people learn to understand how the world works and are then empowered to change it.
My former doctor, whose diagnosis of my inherited depression probably saved my life, once suggested to me that I suffered from “Don Quixote Syndrome”. In his view I wasted too much time and energy “tilting at windmills”, trying to do the impossible, solve problems which were insoluble. He was right.
This piece of writing will ultimately do nothing other than allow me to vent my spleen, to rant.
As a moderate socialist who believes equally in the need to distribute the world’s wealth more equitably and in the need for the world’s bludgers and parasites to get off their arses and do something to help themselves, I am acutely aware of the fact that I am unable to convince others of the validity of my views.
The fact that the vast bulk of the world’s wealth rests in the hands of so few people is an obscenity. The fact that the world is controlled by narcissists, egotists and megalomaniacs is equally obscene. The historical forces which have brought about this situation are apparent to anyone who has the eyes to see. We can’t change the past but we might avoid creating an equally despicable future, if only we had the understanding required and the will to try.
Having spent my formative years living a long way below the “poverty line” I was able to experience at first hand, the effect of poverty on the human psyche, both in my own case and in the lives of my social peers.
Self-image is a principal determinant of behaviour. Put simply, a poor self-image will often lead to poor behaviour choices, whilst a strong and positive self-image will often lead to positive behaviour choices.
Poverty is a major contributor to poor self-image.
As a pauper my self-image was most often in a state of flux. The depth of my emotion was generally fairly constant but the nature of my thoughts swung frequently from negative to positive, almost without conscious input from me.
Academic achievement, at least in primary school and, much later, at university, allowed me to believe that I had some worth, that there was something good about me. However, it was small compensation for the crushing feeling of worthlessness, uselessness and stupidity which my failure to better manage my life, and the lives of my family members, created in me.
When, at the age of nine, I went to buy food at the local shop and had to ask the shopkeeper to grant me credit, I was stricken with embarrassment. Being too poor to pay for your food was a demeaning experience which I dreaded every time it was necessary, and it was necessary with unfortunate regularity. I felt pathetic. I was a beggar.
Wearing worn-out shoes and clothes left me humiliated, and being unable to afford text books or school excursions simply added to my feeling of isolation. I lived in perpetual fear of mismanaging the family’s limited money, by paying the wrong bill at the wrong time, and of being ejected from the Housing Commission sty for my failure to keep the grass mowed. A visit to the rental office to ask for an extension because we had insufficient money to pay the rent caused me to feel disgrace.
So occasional feelings which resembled pride were interspersed with regular feelings of abject shame, and remnants of those early lessons have remained with me throughout my life. As a rational adult I know that these feelings are wrong and undeserved. My successes a teacher and as a parent have provided me with ample evidence of my true worth as a person, but the vestiges of self-contempt which blighted my younger life are ever-present.
For some people, being poor is soul destroying.
In some traditional indigenous societies, before the intervention of imperialists and their subsequent destruction of those societies’ cultures, it may be that wealth and poverty were alien concepts.
A subsistence culture which relied upon its members to work co-operatively in the provision of food and shelter, and had little, if any, need for individual material possessions, may still have had its social hierarchy, with leaders and followers, the physically strong and weak, but as long as each member made a contribution consistent with his or her capacity to do so, the fragile were provided for and dignity could be preserved.
Their social systems may not have been idyllic and would certainly have been subject to the whims of human frailty, but they were almost certainly preferable to those which followed invasion by an imperialist power.
Creators of empires have always been obsessed with their innate right to take, by any means, that which they desire. Empire builders are typically egomaniacs, convinced that they have been given the power, usually by some non-existent god figure or a delusion of their personal divinity, to mould the world into a state of reality which is, in fact, a self-reflecting image.
By dint of enhanced physical, emotional or intellectual capacity, leaders arise to control the groups from which they emerge. Power brings wealth in many forms and greater wealth brings increased power. Leaders band together, pooling their resources in the interests of increasing their group’s power and soon the society is divided into classes – “the haves and the have nots”.
Some very powerful leaders become “royal”, granting favours to selected supporters who, in turn, favour other “lesser” people, and in this way a “class system”, as brilliantly demonstrated in the structure of the British Empire, is created.
Membership of royalty, aristocracy, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class, lower class, even lower class and the dregs of society, is preordained by birthright and is usually only changed by virtue of endeavour or providence. Merit has no function in the selection of contemporary royalty or aristocracy and some of the world’s best known lunatics have emerged from these elevated social strata.
In democracies, quasi-democracies and sham democracies, it is too often the shit which floats to the top of the pool, as evidenced by the bald-faced contempt for appropriate behaviour, and for the electorate, demonstrated by many elected politicians who consider themselves to be “above the populace”, to be the “chosen aristocracy”.
With egos in inverse proportion to their capacity for social conscience, the upper class horde the wealth, seizing much more than they could ever reasonably need, as a symbol of their superiority. To share wealth and power would be to potentially lose both. To elevate the poor would be a threat to anyone who cherishes his or her upper class status. The poor are essential components of any class-based societal structure, since, without the poor to look down, how would the rich know that they were superior?
Politicians are masters, and mistresses, of the twin arts of engendering fear and promising relief from fear. Aside from global annihilation and mass destruction by religious fanatics, the thing which people fear most is economic distress, the inability to maintain a financially viable position in society.
That poverty is a very useful political tool is borne out by the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s shameful and disingenuous 1997 statement that “by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty”. This profoundly inappropriate and politically inept statement eventually haunted Hawke throughout his lack-lustre political career.
A “leader” who promised so much in terms of social justice and delivered nothing of consequence, Hawke is perhaps best remembered as a beer-swilling show-off and philanderer who, instead of “keeping the bastards honest”, became one of the bastards.
People fear poverty and feel contempt for the poor, and politicians exploit that fear. By promising to secure voters against the loss of financial status, and by promising the poor to improve their financial status, our elected leaders secure a mandate to do nothing other than maintain the current order. It is in their best interest to do as little as possible to encourage change.
Remove the threat of poverty, or relative poverty, and create an educated electorate, and you will have to manage voters who are able to focus their attention upon genuine social issues, who can detect bullshit and sidestep “spin”, in order to get to the inevitable truth that a politician’s principal and overriding goal is not to build a better world, but to be re-elected. An educated electorate will hold politicians accountable and that’s the last thing any sensible politician wants.
My escape from poverty can be attributed solely to the fact that I was able to learn despite the failings of the school system. I was incredibly fortunate to have been taught by some remarkable people who invented ways to circumvent the fact that “free education” was, and is, a fallacy.
It was not, and never would be, free. I owe a great debt to the teacher who gave up his lunchtimes to coach me in order that I might win a bursary to carry me through the early years of secondary school, the Principal who engineered “one-off academic prizes” so that I could attend school excursions which I could never have paid for and who arranged for my mother to “rent” my school textbooks at a minimal fee in order to preserve our dignity, and the secondary school teachers who treated me like an individual although they were forced to be in the business of mass education.
The efforts of those teachers alone, however, would not have been enough to see me survive my schooling experience. The transition to high school had resulted in my separation from my only primary school friend, but in a remarkable stroke of good fortune I met some guys who had already been friends since early childhood, and they welcomed me into their group.
Aside from meeting my incredible wife and helping to establish my own family, the creation of those friendships, still alive fifty-five years on, were probably the most significant events in my life – true gems.
By becoming a teacher, I was able to both thank those people for their kindnesses and to make myself financially secure. I would be rich only in relative terms, but I would have no more worries about insufficient money. I would be able to provide for my own family, if I were to be so blessed.
That was the plan, but I became one of the mice and men for whom the best laid plans went astray.
I found the first of my true riches in 1972 and we were married in 1973. We bought a house, ex-Housing Commission, before we were married, and lived there until the second of my true riches, born in 1976, was three years old.
In 1979 our family moved into the first home which any of us had known, that had not been built to cater to the needs of the poor. In 1981, the third of my true riches, our daughter, was born and our immediate family was complete. I was living in luxury, relatively speaking.
My career became one of my personal riches and it was my ambition at that time was to become a school Principal by the age of forty. This would enable me to do two things – firstly, to ensure the best quality of education which I could provide for the greatest number of students over the longest period of time, and secondly to ensure my family’s financial security in the long term.
My marriage to Jenni further inspired me to reach my goal, but, with the arrivals of Damon and Erin, my perspective changed, as did my career timetable. My family would come first and my career second. I would achieve my professional aims, but not at the expense of my family life. The “timetable” was “out the window”, I had earned two promotions and life was good, when everything went arse-up.
I had secured my first promotion into a school executive position at one of the best of our local schools, and I couldn’t believe my luck – marvellous students and a great boss, but it was early in my first year there that I experienced more than three months of chronic insomnia. Dissatisfied with my incompetent GP, I visited the doctor recommended by my Principal. Kun Gay Yap was an outstanding physician and person, and he became an extremely significant part of my life from that time on.
Gay diagnosed Endogenous Depression, a condition caused by internal, rather than external factors, in this case a deficiency in the brain chemical Serotonin. It is highly likely that this condition had been inherited from my mother who had herself inherited it from hers. Medication, and a certain amount of change to my work ethic, had the condition under some control within months of the diagnosis.
I was almost reluctant to take up my second promotion, to Assistant Principal, as it meant having to leave the school at which I had spent four happy and productive years, but my mental health issues were well managed and the climb to the top of the ladder beckoned strongly.
The promotion and change of school ultimately meant the end of my career, and serious threats to my health and to my family’s welfare.
It took only weeks for me to confirm that I had been “promoted” from the sublime to the ridiculous. The two schools were polar opposites in terms of management. The behaviour of too many students in my new school was outrageous, out of control. Bullying was rife, the level of abusive behaviour, and even violence towards staff, was beyond belief, and the teachers were powerless to do anything about it.
At a staff meeting we decided to design and implement an improvement plan. The work was relentless. Expectations of behaviour were taught and negative consequences for failure to comply were applied. It took six months of incredibly hard work but we gradually turned the jungle into a zoo. Within twelve months the zoo had become a school.
Our efforts were further rewarded when, at the end of my second year there, we were able to celebrate the departure of our “leader”, and welcome a genuine Principal.
The workload during the preceding two years had been enormous and, after ensuring our new boss’ smooth transition, I fell in a heap. I had burned out and needed a full term on sick leave in order to get back on my feet.
I recovered in time to farewell the new and improved Principal after only one year. He was replaced by an outstanding gentleman and the whole school was moving forward, until the cancer from which he had been suffering, claimed his life less than six months into the job.
I filled the Acting Principal’s role until a long-term replacement was appointed a couple of months later. I had worked with her before and knew that I could not do so again, so, after months of trying to assist her in acclimatising to what was, for her, a totally foreign environment, I transferred to a new school.
By this stage I was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted, but I settled well into my new role and I had begun to recover.
Just as the camel was about to stand again, the last straw arrived in the form of a letter from the Education Department telling me that my sick leave record was unacceptable and that my attendance would be monitored in future. Basically, they were saying that I was a shirker who was taking time off to go to the beach, and that I’d be watched for further indiscretions.
I went through the effing roof!
Then the anger receded and depression swallowed me up – not because of my already diagnosed condition, but because I could only take a certain amount of abuse before reacting by “shutting down”. I was a basket case, unable to get out of bed, let alone go to work.
The impact on Jenni and the kids was devastating, but I didn’t know what was happening. Being gaga does that to you.
After further instances of gross mismanagement by the education bureaucracy, I finally had no choice but to resign. Farewell security, hello poverty.
Almost. As she had already done on too many occasions, Jenni took sole charge of my welfare and that of the children. With only one wage coming in she demanded of her employer, and received, a pay rise to which she had been entitled for years. Our mortgage could still be paid, and the family fed and clothed.
After many months I was able to go back to work on a part-time basis before eventually returning to teaching full-time, but with no executive responsibilities. Financially we were sound again, but the long-term damage to our security had been done. By resigning I had given up my place in the world’s best superannuation scheme, one which the government closed down as soon as it could. As a result, upon retirement, I had lost somewhere in the vicinity of six-hundred and fifty thousand to seven-hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Currently we are living on what’s left of my small superannuation payout and one half of a married age pension. $350.00 per week isn’t a lot of money, but I feel like I’m rich.
No, I haven’t gone gaga again. It’s about perspective.
There could really be no compensation for the destruction caused to my life by the several episodes of Reactive Depression which were brought about by my exposure to extreme work stress, though I had some limited success in the Workers’ Compensation court.
However, the experiences taught me some incredibly valuable, and life-changing lessons.
I was reminded again that poverty is not just having insufficient money to live, rather than merely exist. It’s about the loss of self-respect, the feeling of shame at being a burden to those whom you love, and who love you. It’s about seeing no viable future, a future in which happiness thrives. True poverty is poverty of the spirit.
I learned, also, to identify those “things” in my life which were most important to me.
Even at my lowest ebb, when the process of rational thinking was almost impossible to manage, I knew that, in order to survive, to keep my life intact, I had only two needs. If I could hold on to my family and have a place for us in which to live decently, I would have all that I really needed. Nothing else mattered.
Today, the prospect of living on an aged pension does not fill me with great excitement. Despite rationalising myself into the belief that the crap events in my life weren’t necessarily my fault, too often the old demons remind me that I was a child of poverty, of humiliation. I would love to be able to spend, without having to weigh every decision as if it were a matter of life and death, to provide a source of financial back up for my kids and grandchildren, in the unlikely event that they’ll ever need it, and to share with Jenni, any and all of the adventures which she would like to undertake anywhere in the world.
Jenni and I aren’t “rich” in the sense that we’ve got money to burn, but we’ve got stacks of everything else that matters.