• NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong in ‘Could You Survive On The Breadline?’ (SBS)Source: SBS
The Greens MP is one of three Australians featured in ‘Could You Survive on the Breadline?’
By
Zoe Victoria

1 Nov 2021 - 10:05 AM  UPDATED 1 Nov 2021 - 10:15 AM

Single mother, Simone, is talking to NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong about what it’s like to live in social housing. 

“I shouldn’t have been looking at a wheelchair for at least another 10 years,” she says. But Simone, who lives with a degenerative disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, has noticed a rapid deterioration of her condition. “Within moving in here, it was two years before I got my first wheelchair.”

Simone believes that the more time she and her young son spend in their home, the sicker they get. Because of the cockroaches and rodents in their home she explains, “I can’t even prep food on [sic] the house anymore. I can’t even go and make a sandwich without something trying to run onto your plate.”

“I can’t even prep food on [sic] the house anymore. I can’t even go and make a sandwich without something trying to run onto your plate.”

Simone’s experience is just one featured in the new SBS documentary series Could You Survive on the Breadline? The series follows three prominent Australians; media personality and best-selling author, Julie Goodwin, News Corp journalist and Sky News commentator, Caleb Bond, and Leong as they discover what it’s really like to be facing poverty and disadvantage. Over three episodes, they meet and live with everyday Australians trying to get by on welfare. Each participant also learns what it’s like to attempt to break the cycle of poverty, when they are challenged to secure a job that will earn them enough income to survive. 

Goodwin spends time in south-west Sydney and learns what it’s like to live on the Jobseeker allowance. She then spends time in a carer’s home witnessing the struggle to provide dignified care for their loved one, before meeting a local business owner working multiple jobs to survive after the pandemic forced the closure of her café.

“I was privileged to take part in a series that not only addresses issues of inequality and inequity, but also challenged the damaging and pervasive stereotypes that surround people living in poverty,” says Goodwin.

In inner-city Sydney, Bond gets an insight into living in public housing and learns what it’s like to rely on the disability support pension. He then meets a single-parent family whose welfare payments need to be supplemented with part time work in order to survive. Before getting a taste of having to work multiple jobs himself.

Of the experience, Bond says, “There are people who are genuinely struggling and can’t seem to get the help they need. You’d like to think governments spend our taxes wisely on those who need help, but I saw waste and bureaucratic incompetence at every turn.”

Over three episodes, they meet and live with everyday Australians trying to get by on welfare. Each participant also learns what it’s like to attempt to break the cycle of poverty, when they are challenged to secure a job that will earn them enough income to survive.

Leong tells SBS Voices she wanted to use the experience "to highlight the real challenges that people face when they’re living in poverty and public housing.”

She says that for Australians living on welfare, money is a constant consideration. “It affects everything you do - your desire to go to the shops, to have an interaction with someone in the community - they’re all impacted by the fact that you don’t have money to spend.”

Leong’s experience on Could You Survive on the Breadline? is a far cry from her everyday reality. She’s aware that there’s a stereotype that sees inner city Greens MPs viewed as “latte sipping socialists”. And she is the first to admit; “I quite enjoy a latte and I enjoy sipping chardonnay as well.”

But the living conditions Leong encountered on the show are vastly different from her own, and those of the politicians that she works alongside.

“Members of Parliament are paid well. We exist in a very elite space,” Leong says. 

She continues: “We need to recognise that some people need help and support in our society...The idea that we would instead inflict further stress and cruelty and harm on them just doesn’t even compute in terms of my world view. Sadly, that’s not the case with a lot of decision makers and there seems to be a desire to punish people to put them off wanting to get support from the system.”

Leong’s experience on the show sees her stay with single mother Shenane. After surviving a violent relationship that left her with extensive injuries, Shenane is exactly the kind of person who Leong believes should be given support.

But the Jobseeker allowance that Shenane relies on to survive leaves her with just $30 a day after rent. In one moment, she explains to Leong her fortnightly budget breakdown.

“If I don’t stick to my budget, I live with nothing for two weeks until I get paid again. Which I did last fortnight, like I literally lived on nothing for two weeks.”

“If I don’t stick to my budget, I live with nothing for two weeks until I get paid again. Which I did last fortnight, like I literally lived on nothing for two weeks.”

Leong tells SBS Voices that she was devastated by how tight money was for Shenane. “She should not be having to worry about the stress of paying her rego. She should not be having to question whether she can afford to pay for prescription medication, so she doesn’t bother going to the doctor.

“These are choices that people shouldn’t have to make. Especially not people that are the victims and survivors of domestic assault,” says Leong. “She should be being cared for and looked after better than anybody else in this whole country.”

Stepping into Shenane’s world for just a short time was confronting for Leong. “But I also knew the whole time that this was for a limited period.

“What to me was the most confronting was how...if that was having an impact on me in a few days, how does it impact on people’s headspace? How does it impact on their health and wellbeing if there is no end in sight for those people?”

"How does it impact on people’s headspace? How does it impact on their health and wellbeing if there is no end in sight for those people?”

Could You Survive on the Breadline? confirmed what Leong already knew - that surviving on welfare affects people’s home lives on a practical level. But she tells SBS Voices that the experience opened her eyes to how isolating it can be to have no money. 

“Being forced to live in poverty is hugely isolating,” she says. “You can’t offer to take someone out for a cup of tea or coffee, you can’t invite someone over to your house because of the quality of your house.

“That feeling of isolation is something that we need to recognise is doing significant damage.”

How do we fix it? Leong believes that the solution is two-fold; government investment in public and social housing and an increase in the amount of welfare support available to the people who need it to survive.

While fellow participant Caleb Bond, has said welfare is “not meant to be an income”, nor is it meant to be “comfortable”, Leong says, “It is very, very clear that forcing people to live below the poverty line is doing them harm."

The new three-part documentary series Could You Survive on the Breadline uncovers what life is like for the millions of people living on welfare. Three prominent Australians - author and TV personality Julie Goodwin, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong, and journalist Caleb Bond, embark on separate journeys into three different Australian communities to gain insights into the poverty and disadvantage experienced by so many in Australia. For all three, the experience will be a confronting and emotional experience.

Could You Survive on the Breadline? airs Wednesdays from 17 November at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly.

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