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Life on the breadline

It takes a massive amount of courage to share one’s journey into poverty with strangers. Debe did that, both with me, and with the SBS audience, for the network’s new documentary about living in poverty, Could You Survive on the Breadline? Here’s a little of her story, as written by me for SBS Voices, and I thank Debe for her honesty, drive and care at a time when she has so little left to give

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“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care”

Could you survive on less than $65.30 a day?

At $426.30 a week, the poverty line is something most of us have never had to face. But 3.24 million Australians, many of whom depend on government welfare payments, are living in poverty – a place of fear, stigma and powerlessness that is laid bare in new SBS series, Could You Survive on the Breadline?

For Debe, 62, in Sydney’s west, it was her husband’s illness that threw her into poverty. For 120 hours every week, she is on hand to nurse her husband, Ron, who is 74 and has advanced dementia. He is immobile, incontinent and can no longer talk.

Debe has chosen to provide home care for Ron rather than sending him to a nursing home. To give him the round-the-clock attention he needs, she left her job as a cleaner and has spent all of their superannuation and savings. She now relies on her local food bank to help put meals on the table.

“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care,” Debe tells SBS Voices.

“My husband literally relies on me to move his body, keep him clean, keep him socially engaged and to help with pressure care and feeding. I’m his arms, his legs, his voice, I’m everything. And people don’t understand how consuming that is,” she says.

The government provides her with a carer’s payment and carer’s allowance totalling $861.20 a fortnight, or around $3.60 an hour. With that, she must first account for the consumables she buys for Ron’s care, including pads, sheets, wipes, medication, food supplements, gloves, sanitisers, creams and cleaning products that are critical to his wellbeing.

Debe is fortunate in that she and Ron have paid off their home, but her latest water bill was about $500 and her electricity over $1000.

Ron is supported by a home care package that does not cover the cost of his equipment and care worker, who is paid $42-$60 an hour, six hours a day.

After using her own support payments towards the care worker, Debe is left with almost nothing. Without the “life saving” charity of her church food bank, which provides her with fruit, vegetables and meat for just $8 a fortnight, even food would be a stretch.

There are no holidays, no meals out, no purchases for herself and even the hairdresser is beyond the budget.

“People need to know that carers are doing it tough financially. People think you’re at home, the government is throwing you money,” she says. “I’m grateful for that amount of money but it doesn’t even touch the surface.”  

Could You Survive on the Breadline? follows three prominent Australians as they attempt to survive on welfare budgets, along the way challenging preconceived ideas about those who rely on government support and the realities of the welfare system. Social security is often called a safety net – and yet, as the program shows, it so often leaves its recipients anything but protected.

Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin, who has first-hand experience of collecting welfare and understands its stigma, spends time with Debe and Ron in the series and says it is “criminal” that the welfare Debe receives is not enough to cover food, let alone a home care structure that allows her any respite.

“No self-care is a recipe for burnout and disaster,” Julie says, adding that there is “no way on earth” the budget she was given on the program – a combination of the JobSeeker payment and the Disability Support Pension – would cover food, rent, bills, a car and clothing. 

The load is taking its toll on Debe and she is now applying for the NDIS because of her own chronic ill-health. In rare moments of downtime, she paints rocks and gives herself a manicure – small acts that she says help “keep your sanity and keep your connection”. She also advocates for carers and studies support in aged care as ways to take positives from her situation.

But it is her community that really keeps her afloat, she says. Her six children, 14 grandchildren, church and carer network are part of the loving community that Ron stays at the heart of by staying at home.

Debe is sharing her story with the hope that it may help shift welfare policy, which must adapt to the needs of carers.

“With dementia, you grieve while they’re still here,” she tells Julie on camera. “Because I know that I’m losing my husband and the government’s not doing what it can and what it ought to do.”

Could You Survive on the Breadline? premieres at 8.30pm, Wednesday 17 November on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series will also be available to stream at SBS On Demand with subtitles in Arabic, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.  See the Program Page for more articles and insights.

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