Post-budget, there was a lot of commentary about whether a household with a combined income of $150k was rich, comfortable or doing it tough. I won’t comment on the budget decisions, except to say that the media is full of dingbats who either don’t know how to analyse a budget, or have scant regard for the truth if they do.
I had a conversation today that made me reflect on what it means to ‘do it tough’. It is an interesting story in-and-of itself (though probably more engaging directly from the primary source), but also I think leaves us with some things to reflect upon.The fantastic thing about (one of) my job(s), is that it necessitates a close relationship with people beyond the normal ‘I work with you’ dynamic. I am a community worker, and so I get to know many people as they go about their home/social lives.
Today, I learnt how to make piroshki, from someone’s babushka (grandmother). This was a group of women who are running their own cooking classes as a social activity, with the benefits of healthy eating tips. Like many public housing estates, where I work it is quite multicultural with many older Russian, Spanish and Chinese people. This week, piroshki was on the menu. Yum!!
The teacher for the day, I’ll call her Anna (not her real name), was clearly pleased to be sharing something that was very personal for her, and to have others show genuine interest in her culture.
As I drank tea and ate piroshki, Anna started telling stories.
Anna and her husband grew up in Ossetia, which was a part of the USSR. She and her husband both studied at University, though had to move to a small town to the north of Moscow to work. This was a hard time, she said. In 1952 Russia was still suffering the after effects of the war.
From what I could tell, Anna graduated from University, got married and moved away from friends and family at the same time. She could not speak nor understand the local dialect. Talk about transitions!
Anyway, Anna’s parting gift from her mother was a tin of rice, some cooking oil and an onion. This was to keep them prepared for whatever might come. Apart from the onion, Anna said that the rice and the oil were quite a luxury. As a wedding gift, they received a spirit stove. These were the only belongings they had to take with them when they moved, for teaching jobs.
Arriving in their new town , Anna and her husband did not know anyone and could not speak the language. Anna told us of the first time she cooked porridge, this was the thought that started her story telling. Porridge, as it turned out, was boiled rice with chopped onion.
Anna had not cooked rice before. The only food they had was the rice, some oil, and an onion. They had only one cooking pot. So Anna filled the small pot, to the top, with the rice, added a bit of water, covered the pot and put it onto the stove that her husband had lit, and cooked the rice.
In a few minutes, the top of the pot started rising as the rice started to swell! She spooned out some of the (scarce) rice, added another cup of water, and put it back onto the cooker. A few minutes later, the top started to rise again as the rice expanded further! The rice and water, she explained, was now blue, as the pot had burned on the bottom.
We all had a good chuckle, including Anna who seemed just a little embarrassed as she reflected over her story.
Anna then explained that this was all the food they had. Her husband ate all his rice, and told her it was good. Anna could not even swallow it, it was that bad. This food was her farewell present from her mother, she repeated.
Still hungry, Anna went to her neighbour to see if they could spare some food. They gave her a small cup of salt. She later asked them where she could buy some food. She was told that there was a supermarket, but as the town was small and quite poor, the shelves would be bare apart from some vodka and cigarettes.There were markets on Thursdays and Sundays.
The next day, Anna and her husband went to their new workplace introduced themselves and managed to get a cash advance for food. The problem was, the town markets only occurred on Thursday and Sunday. It was now Wednesday. The only thing they ate from the time they left home until the markets opened on Thursday, was the uncooked/burnt rice.
It was a hard time in Russia, she said. It was seven years after the end of WWII.
I won’t be facetious and say that the 150kers don’t know hard, because the Russians had it hard. But I do think we need to consider what makes our lives feel hard, and our wallets feel empty. Hardship is caused by things outside your control, like a rooted economy, discrimination, inter-generational poverty and other forms of disadvantage. Financial pressure can include hardship, but it also includes constantly spending and committing to the limits of what we can afford and never quite feeling like we have enough. I put my hand up for this particular trait.
A couple on $150k who consider themselves to be doing it tough, should reflect more on the nice house, car and lifestyle that they have chosen for themselves. It is human nature to want that extra toy, but not the role of Government to give it to you.
I am frustrated by the ‘middle-class welfare’ meme. I support universal services and, to some extent, broad-based welfare, because I think that ultimately the more people that receive these government interventions, the more political support they will have and this will in the end benefit those that are most disadvantaged and otherwise in hardship.
But the story above and the post budget media coverage has made me reflect more broadly on the consumer culture that we live in, the entitlement that it breeds and the ultimate unsustainability of it as an ideological underpinning of our society.