What I learned as a guest house proprietor
I learned about poverty. The house had 22 rooms and was located in a lower socio-economic area. The inhabitants were all poor. But they weren't "down on their luck". They made their luck. They were generally pleasant people to talk to and were quite prone to conservative views on social issues. None of them had any time for "poofters" (homosexuals), for instance. They were however much prone to larceny. They stole from one another with considerable regularity. I got on quite well with them in general. I would not have been able to run the place otherwise. My own working class background undoubtedly helped. I could use their own language and idioms in talking to them.
But because I got on well with them, I got to know a fair bit about them. None of them had a job so lived on welfare payments. And by the time the next payment came around there was nothing left of the previous payment. Their pockets were empty. They didn't save a cent. There was just one exception, a very black TI man (a Melanesian) by the name of Apu. As he handed me his rent one day he remarked that he had got into a fight last night and lost his money. He then went on to say: "So I went to the bank and got some out".
So why was it only a black man who was able to save? Christianity is strong on TI so I guess Apu learnt some good habits from that. There was no religion among my white tenants.
So it was amusing to see what happened on "payday". A steady stream of "goon" (sweet white wine, mostly "Fruity Lexia") in cardboard boxes would arrive. I don't begrudge them that but it is part of where their money went. Goon gives you the biggest hit for your buck but even goon is not cheap.
And the other money habit I observed was that my tenants were hopeless shoppers. They would buy rubbish food -- like bags of potato crisps -- and buy it off a nearby service station where prices were generally at least a third higher than at a supermarket, And there was a good supermaket only about 10 minutes walk away. Had they made a point of price-conscious shopping they would have had substantial money left over by the end of the week.
So they made their own poverty.
There are of course some people whom the Victorians called "the deserving poor" -- people who are poor due to some sort of misadventure rather than due to fecklessness -- but I saw none of those. I have to conclude that they are a small minority of the poor -- albeit a minority who do deserve compassion and help.
So what policy lessons do I draw from what I saw? For a start, most of the ones I saw would be only marginally employable. Their skills, habits and attitudes were not really consistent with a job. Training would probably lift some of them into employability but whether they would actually take a job would be an issue. Some of them were clearly quite happy to live fancy-free on welfare payments.
The only way I see forward is something the Australian Federal government is already trying in some localities -- giving welfare payments in the form of a debit card that can be used only to buy essentials but not such things as alcohol and tobacco products: similar to the American SNAP system ("food stamps"). But we know that such a system has its limits. The card holder buys goods that SOMEONE ELSE wants and exchanges those goods for money. But such a system should in some cases make the getting of a job more attractive
The Victorian attitude of DISAPPROVAL of poverty would probably also help but any return of that is most unlikely. Society has come to accept its parasites