I was walking home from the gym in my well-worn joggers recently when my little toe popped out the side. My frugal mind went straight to gaffer tape, which took me back to a cold, wet winter at the start of the new millennium; the soles of my school shoes full of holes, threadbare socks soaked through by the time I’d walked across the road to school.
There’s a financial outlay at the start of every new school year, but especially as you transition from primary to high school. There are at least two new uniforms – regular and sports day. You have more classes, which means more books and, in turn, a bigger school bag. There are school fees and excursions and other extracurricular activities. It’s expensive.
I grew up in the housing commission estates of Sydney’s western suburbs after my mother fled a violent relationship. She raised three of us on a single parent pension. Currently the maximum payment per fortnight is almost $950 – just under $25,000 per year – so I can’t even imagine how much less it was 20 plus years ago. Sure, the cost of living wasn’t as high back then and our rent was subsidised, but it was a struggle. And our situation wasn’t unique.
Kids wore their summer uniforms in winter, arms and legs purple with the cold. Classmates shoplifted their lunch from Woolies. Teachers fed hungry kids with cheeseburger vouchers attached to McDonalds awards. Financially powerless women stared down the barrel of homelessness while trying to flee domestic violence.
Mum would have made sure I had new shoes had she known I needed them – she often went without so us kids didn’t have to, like all good mothers and fathers do – but I didn’t tell her. I knew she’d just spent a small fortune on getting me high school ready and felt bad about asking for more. The shoes still fit, so I figured I could make it work.
I’d kick my hole-ridden shoes off in class, try to let them dry out a bit. Wrinkly skin would rub off my heels as I pushed the backs down with the opposite foot. The shoes would squeak off and stink, the smell wafting up from under the desk so the girl sitting next to me would scrunch up her nose, and classmates would look my way. Embarrassed, I’d squeak-slide my feet back inside my joggers, cold water squelching around my toes.
At lunchtime, I’d save the plastic wrap from my Vegemite sandwich and ask a friend for hers too. In the girl’s bathroom, I’d try to dry my itchy-wet feet with toilet paper and plastic wrap them, separating the wet of my shoes and socks from my skin. But it didn’t work. The office ladies would give me Band-Aids for my blisters, but they’d slip-and-slide off. I’d walk with a limp, shoes rubbing against raw skin.
Thankfully (and not surprisingly), it didn’t take long for Mum to cotton on and sort it out. But this long-lost memory got me thinking of a quote from Men at Arms: The Play by Terry Pratchett: “A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”
I think many people are feeling like Sam Vimes right now; struggling to get ahead, buying the $10 boots that “were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out”. Some are feeling this struggle for the first time. Some are feeling it worse than others. And some have been feeling it for much longer than the news headlines would have us believe.
I know times are tough right now. Like many, I too am struggling with interest rate hikes and the cost of living. To be honest, I don’t know how single income households with kids and mortgages are managing. But I also know, from personal experience, that the struggle to make ends meet is not new. In fact, the further down the socioeconomic ladder you are, the longer this has been a problem.
What most of us are experiencing right now is just a little taster of what some vulnerable and underrepresented segments of our community have been struggling with for decades, for generations, forever. And sadly, as we see the cost of basic food, health and hygiene products increase, the impacts will be felt even more by those with the least.