A tale of two puppies

Two of my Facebook friends are having a rough time with their dogs; paying a lot of vet bills and worrying themselve sick over the wellbeing of their pet. But they’re handling it completely differently.

One friend is from a decently well off family, is University educated and from the look of her Facebook updates, lives pretty comfortably.

The other friend left school early and is currently a house cleaner. She is spending pretty well everything she has trying to give her terminally ill dog as nice an exit from this world as she can. When she really has to, she relies on the kindness of the vet to waive or reduce their fees.

To the bemusement of a few of us, my well-off friend has started asking for donations to cover her vet bills.

This is not a “rich kids are brats with a sense of entitlement” rant. A few of the friends who were shocked by the dog-donation-fund also grew up fairly well off.

But I think you have to have grown up with money to be able to ask for a handout

I grew up poor. My parents lost everything they had when the small family business folded, and soon after Dad was put on to a disabilty pension, which he remained on until he died. He needed Mum around to care for him, so we lived solely on a poverty-line pension for most of my school years. Although he often resented the relentless need to prove his disability to Centrelink, I don’t think Dad ever thought we were entitled to the pension. He was grateful for it. He knew that without it we wouldn’t survive.

The child care rebate cut-off discussion has made me realise something that I find a bit embarassing: our household is in the top 10% (give or take 5%, depending who you read) of incomes in the country. And that’s true for most of our friends, too. Given that the poverty-line in Australia would be upper-class in ¾ of the world, it really is hubmling, shocking and as I said, a little embarassing.

So I have some experience at a lot of points along the Australian income scale.

I’ve never known someone who was poor who would ask their friends for money unless it was literally life and death. I’ve never known someone who was poor who thought they deserved Centrelink payments.

There’s a shame that comes with being poor, particularly when you’re reliant on government handouts. I still feel it, although less and less. But whenever I deal with Centrelink about some form of government payment, that shame comes rushing back.

Well off people wonder why poor people support welfare for the rich. In part I think it’s because you learn to not begrudge people their wealth. The poor don’t hate the rich; they’re not even jealous of them. In a very real sense, it gives them hope that their children may have better lives.

It also feels less shameful if everyone is on welfare.

But there is something perverse about my family getting government benefits, in the same way as its perverse to ask for money for a dog when you could pay for it yourself. That money could be helping people that really need it. People who, like me as a kid, really cannot survive by modern standards without that help.

It’s easy to lose a sense of income relativity. We mostly hang out with people in a similar income bracket, and regardless of how much money you have there’s always times that seem hard. But in the same way as Australian poverty is not the same as Cambodian poverty, hard times on $150k a year are not the same as hard times on $25k a year.

If you’ve ready my blog or Twitter feed or been silly enough to talk to me about politics, you know I’m not a socialist. I firmly believe that total income equality would a terrible thing for everyone. But I do, strongly believe that as a society, as people, we have a duty to look after those that can’t look after themselves. To help them get to a point, if possible, where they can be independent. It breaks my heart to think that money that could be used to help the many, many people in genuine need is spent making me more comfortable. It breaks my heart that the welfare process shames and belittles those people that need it the most.

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