The Families Minister, Jenny Macklin, claims she can live on $35 a day.
I'd like to know her secret. When I was on the dole I dreamt of how I could make it work. Where I wasn't just surviving on the dole but living on it, properly living.
In my fantasies I was no longer in a share flat in Bondi (rent: $35.71¢ a day), but was transported into a make-believe place I'll call Dole Valley – an agrarian socialist community where everyone could live happily on $35 a day.
Maybe this agrarian socialist community is what Jenny Macklin had in mind when she made her breezy assertion about living on the dole (so breezy it wasn't caught on tape).
I can see her there in Dole Valley, an elder of sorts, leading the drumming workshop or skilfully chairing the oral storytelling workshop (books are expensive, but words are free). Maybe she is operating the refurbished loom salvaged by a freegan Dole Valley resident during a trawl of the hard rubbish night in Bellevue Hill? From this loom she would weave magnificent garments from the wool unravelled from op-shop rejects left outside the Paddington Vinnies and barter her scratchy jumpers in return for firewood.
She would weave and the children would sing in rounds and the adults would tend the vegetable patch (everyone is a vegetarian in Dole Valley as meat is a bit pricey) and there would be no one feeling left behind, or stressed or angry, or hungry or alienated or depressed.
Because it's a breeze living on $35 a day, IF YOU LIVE IN A PRETEND SOCIALIST AGRARIAN SOCIETY!
Bloody hell, when will politicians understand – really properly understand – that you cannot live on $35 a day in Australia – let alone Sydney, ranked recently as one of the most expensive cities in the world? A place where those on an income of $120,000 a year profess to be on Struggle Street?
People on $35 a day have to live in the same world as people earning $500 a day. But the headspace is different. People on $35 fret all the time: can I make this $60 last till next week? Will I run out of phone credit and miss that crucial job interview call back? Maybe if I wait long enough on a Sunday night the supermarket will deep discount the meat and I can arrive in that small, sweet window of time between it being marked down and it being thrown out.
People on $35 a day are never quite comfortable because the margin (between the wolf and the door) is too narrow.
So if people on $120,000 a year find Sydney tough, what about those on $35 a day?
Here are some hints should Jenny Macklin ever find herself on $35 a day:
These places are a godsend if you are unemployed and/or on a low income. You can use the internet to job hunt, read the papers and find safe refuge in that great comfort of the lonely – books. Libraries are usually safe, warm and welcoming. You have to be pretty loud and off-your-chops to be asked to leave, and even then some public libraries – like the one in Kings Cross – have a pretty broad view as to what constitutes a "disturbance". Unlike hanging around in shops or cafes, these are semi-public spaces where you do not need a lot of money to get access.
Witness the outcry in Britain when the Tory spending cuts started hitting the libraries. These places aren't just about getting "free" books; they are for some people a literal refuge – the only public space where they feel welcome and accepted.
If libraries aren't really Macklin's thing – or if they have been closed down due to funding cuts – what better place to kill time than the Mac Store? The New Yorker recently ran a piece about how the store on Fifth Avenue was a hangout joint for the city's homeless teens.
In Sydney Macklin could chill at the George Street superstore. Under the guise of pricing laptops she could sneakily apply for jobs, update her Facebook status and tweet ("Macklin's in da MacStore. Tweet me cos I'm outta phone credit #Ilovemy$35adaylife")
The dole diet is a bit random. You can end up skipping meals because you have no cash or eating badly from the McDonald's Loose Change menu.
Last year I interviewed Marcus Godinho, the chief executive of FareShare, which operates a kitchen that provides meals to those going hungry. Demand for the service is on the increase. He said the typical person who eats a FareShare meal is not the stereotype of someone who is homeless, but is someone struggling with the rising cost of living.
“There is a growing number of people with a roof over their head but not enough money to provide three nutritional meals a day for themselves and their family,” Godinho said.
“People are skipping meals and sending their kids to school without breakfast or money for the tuckshop.”
It's free. And it kills time. And it numbs you when you can't afford to comfort eat or binge drink.
So if you see Jenny Macklin in the library or the Mac Store, or square eyed from too much tellie or hungry from skipping meals or spotty from poor nutrition – ask her again how easy it is to live on $35 a day.