Living on the dole
Yesterday, in response to calls to raise Centrelink unemployment payments by $75 a week I wrote briefly:
In my youth I lived on the dole for a time. It was then £2/7/6 pw., if that notation means anything to anybody these days. Equal to $70.00 these days. I lived well and even saved money on it. But I spent nothing on beer and cigarettes and I ate exclusively at home. I could even afford an egg or two with my breakfast porridge. Eggs, porridge and milk are very cheap to this day and form a very solid foundation for a day's nourishment. And you can generally get day-old bread for a song. Good for toast. I don't think it is hard at all if one is not spoilt by uncompromising expectations
My comments that in my youth I lived on an unemployment dole of $70.00 pw evoked some incredulity. The current dole in Australia is $200 more than that. Why the difference?
For a start, I initially gave the actual dole I received: £2/7/6. I then used the Reserve Bank's online calculator to translate £2/7/6 in 1960 to current dollars. And $70 was the answer. The Reserve bank calculator was based on official price indices so is a very scholarly figure which makes allowances for just about anything that might distort the answers that it gives. So I think we might have to live with the fact that I really did live on that little.
So how? A revealing part of the answer is that before I went on the dole I had a job as a junior clerk -- in which I was paid around £6 pw So ALL young sprouts at that time had to live on very little by modern standards. I was 17 in 1960.
Note the age factor. As a junior I did not get the full dole. The full dole was the equivalent of about $100 pw in terms of current purchasing power. But it's still not much, is it?
So how come? I am afraid the explanation is pretty simple. We ALL were a lot poorer 60 years ago. The vast influence of international capitalism has been incredibly enriching for us all over time. Back in 1960 we did have a lot of the things that people now do but we had to work a lot longer for them. We did for instance have motor cars but only the well-off had new ones. My father never had a new car in his life.
Eating out was almost unknown but most people could afford a square meal at home at dinner time. But it was a VERY square meal. Day after day, month after month and year after year it consisted of the same thing: Meat and 3 veg. Australia has great herds of beef cattle so even working class people could often afford steak a lot of the time but when that failed there were always sausages or minced beef. And it was amazing what you could do with mince. The 3 veg. that came with the meat ALWAYS included some form of potatoes (usually boiled) plus a selection of boiled beans, cabbage and carrots. If you were a bit fancy you might get cauliflower.
So EVERYBODY lived very economically in those days. They had to. But there were also people who were really poor -- people who spent half their money on beer and cigarettes mainly. They had to live the way I did: feeding themselves mainly off milk, porridge, eggs and day-old bread with plum jam on it. Day-old bread was generally available for half price or less and made very good toast. And you bought plum jam in big tins to keep the price down. Most houses had a substantial backyard where you could grow most of your fruit and vegetables if you were thrifty.
Food aside, unemployment was less than 2%. You could get on a steam train and go interstate to visit family and friends at vacation time. There was always the family car for local trips. The newspapers had lots of interesting news, particularly from overseas. You could hear all the latest songs on the radio. The ladies could buy pretty dresses occasionally and even in small towns there were several bars where one could drink cold beer after a hard day's work. What else is there? So it wasn't too bad, all told. And there was a lot less obesity!
What I have writen above is a very abbreviated account of working class life in Australia in 1960 but I think it still has the lesson in it that unemployed people today have lots of scope to cut back rather than raiding the taxpayer for money that will keep them in the style that they aspire to.
And there are some unwise people for whom no dole would ever be enough. There is a story here of a "struggling" Sydney single mother who spends two thirds of her dole on rent. And where does she live? On Sydney's prestigious and very expensive North Shore. And she feels hard done by! I lived in a small Queensland farming town when I was on the dole. For people with "expectations", that would not do at all at all, of course