Early in March, Mum sends a text: ‘Hi Bec do you have a toilet paper shortage up there we do here lol none’. All of this panic is amusing at first; aren’t we all taking this—whatever this is—a little overboard? When I finally go to the local Woolworths, I tentatively walk down the toilet paper aisle, expecting that the buying panic has subsided, assuming Mum had blown things out of proportion when she said she drove to no less than eight different supermarkets to find it. And then I see it for myself: an entire aisle of empty shelves.
After that first apocalyptic glimpse into our ‘new normal’, every trip to the supermarket has induced a special kind of existential panic in me. I take note of each new disappeared item: flour, sugar, eggs, two-minute noodles (but not the wholegrain ones), deodorant, toothbrushes. What had been comical and perplexing at first—who needs that much deodorant anyway?—becomes grief-inducing. It takes me a few shopping trips to locate the source of that grief (thanks to many years of therapy, probably). The bare shelves make me feel the same way I feel when I see houses that have the faded carcasses of children’s toys on the nature strip—an uncanny throwback to growing up in the forgotten suburbs with a single mum living off the single parent pension. It’s the grief of scarcity, poverty, welfare dependence—a grief of there being no toilet paper, no future.
We aren’t born with shame; it’s layered on to our lives from the day we begin to exist in the world.
‘Make sure you don’t put your address on your resume; the people hiring will judge you before they meet you.’ These were the words of wisdom delivered to me as a 17-year old, freshly graduated from high school and weeks later thrust into another kind of classroom, this time at Mission Australia in Miller, South-West Sydney.
During those mandatory ‘job-ready’ classes, we watched videos from the 80s of people wearing crisp collared shirts working in offices and I saw clearly for the first time the kind of life I’d been born into. It seemed that these were the people we should aspire to become. The point of these classes wasn’t to get the unemployed ‘job-ready’, it was to instil in us the idea that we were somehow less—that we’d landed here in this classroom as a direct result of our failure to join the productive social classes. The idea of a ‘future’ wasn’t a concept I’d been privileged enough to entertain. Welfare dependence was my inheritance.
On the morning of my 18th birthday, Mum took me to Centrelink. She said we had to put in the paperwork for Youth Allowance that day, otherwise we wouldn’t get paid in time to pay rent. Mum tells me we’re here because my dad, who is no longer legally obligated to, won’t support me, and I can’t live with Mum for free.
It took a global pandemic for the federal government to temporarily increase the Newstart payment (now known as JobSeeker), a payment that—in 26 years—has not increased, despite the rising cost of living. Seeing news footage of all of the freshly jobless people lining the suburbs queuing for Centrelink made me acutely aware of the relative privilege I now possess.
Mid-last year, aged 31, I made the call to cancel my Newstart payment and live off my 12-hour-a-week admin job at a not-for-profit. The stress and anxiety of the weekly job-searching appointments, the feeling that at any moment my obligations would change, not knowing whether it would be the week my job serviced provider remembered I was meant to do Work for the Dole—all of this was slowly undoing me.
So many people don’t get to choose. So many are born without choice and grow up into lives without choice. This was my life and I’m keenly aware that at any moment, it could be my life again. This is what the empty shelves at Woolworths remind me.
In my teenage years, we often had to choose between buying copies of school photos or buying food. We had to choose between fresh sets of school uniforms from Lowes or groceries. There were times when Mum could only afford to buy a single roll of toilet paper instead of a six-pack, or a twelve-pack. It’s this last memory that I keep coming back to, staring at the empty shelves, thinking about the people who had the means to panic buy and the people who didn’t.
For most of my life I’ve lived off some form of Centrelink benefit, and up until this year—currently I have both a PhD scholarship and a secure part-time job—I’ve never lived above the poverty line. I’ve never known financial security. I don’t have super I can ‘dip in’ to. My future has never been certain. And now, globally, all of our collective futures feel increasingly uncertain, so far out of reach, in the hands of people in power who have no understanding of what it means to be here, where we are.
In the weeks since the federal government announced the increase to JobSeeker—and the subsequent relaxing of the invasive, insidious requirements generally required for people on this payment—there has been an uptick in news articles citing handy tips for helping you navigate the Centrelink system for the first time. Amongst these first-time applicants, there may be those who otherwise view welfare recipients as ‘dole-bludgers’. I can’t help but wonder if after all this—whatever this is—people’s attitudes might change, even just a little, as we are all collectively brought to our knees in the realisation that our carefully constructed lives are so fallible, so easily altered.
In what was an already unstable economy, suddenly the margins of what separates ‘dole-bludger’ from ‘Aussie battler’ are closing in, shifting. Perhaps they’re forever changed. After these six months—which is the timeline the government has increased the JobSeeker payment for—what happens to these ‘regular people’ who have had to access Centrelink for the first time? Will they too be forced to live on the maximum $550 a fortnight Australian welfare recipients have lived off—under increasing insecurity and scrutiny—since 1994? Will the government finally bow down to increasingly desperate calls to raise the rate when it is no longer a problem faced solely by the so-called lower classes?
None of this is really just about toilet paper—it’s about class, and the structures of power that enforce these systems and keep us in our tightly regulated lanes. Perhaps it had to take a global crisis to shift long-held assumptions about people who need access to welfare; it’s magical thinking to assume that in six months, those first-timers currently doing it tough will walk back into the life of secure employment they had in the before.
And still, I can’t even imagine a life where this is the first time.
Rebecca Jessen is a timeless boi. a linen daddy. a random shy poet. a sleeping body that remembers desire. a comet trail. a body that is a bridge. a moonstruck adolescent. an incomplete list poem. a lesbian but… Ask Me About the Future is her second book with University of Queensland Press.