What kind of people do you imagine live in poverty? Perhaps someone who uses drugs and has dropped out the school? A single mother with three children, renting in the outer suburbs?
Despite the stereotypes that permeate pop culture, poverty can happen to anyone; there is no immunity against struggling to keep a roof over your head and put food on the table.
While some people are more likely to live in poverty, the scary reality is that poverty can happen to anyone.
"Mum and I could tell you how much anything in IGA cost, to the cent."
It happened to Canberra woman Jessica Ellis and her mother, who was a successful businesswoman and provided a comfortable upbringing for her young daughter. But when Ellis was just two-years-old, her mother became ill with a disabling chronic illness.
It turned their lives upside down.
“We were forced to move out to a rural location in New South Wales (from their home in Canberra) for a couple of years to get financially stable again, as we couldn’t maintain our house.”
I was wearing clothes from Vinnies and that alienated me; all my friends were wearing Roxy and Billabong and I stood out in a crowd.
What could have been a comfortable childhood became one in which Ellis had to grow up fast, getting her first job at 13 so she could contribute to the household.
“I had a much larger role in calculating our everyday life,” she says. “Mum and I could tell you how much anything in IGA cost, to the cent, and we strategised to balance what we needed with what we could afford.”
Ellis only realised that her family was ‘different’ once she moved into high school.
“I was in a non-uniformed school and it was instantly obvious that I was wearing clothes from Vinnies and that alienated me; all my friends were wearing Roxy and Billabong and I stood out in a crowd.
“I wasn’t the most confident of kids, so it sent me even further backwards. I felt like a little bit of an alien. I stood out even more than I did before and it wasn’t very encouraging. On a positive note, I focused very strongly on my studies, because I didn’t exactly have a social life. I was lumped into the so-called 'losers' group because of what I wore.”
“I think many people assume that people who are in poverty started out that way but that’s not the case.”
When she told her friends about how she and her mother didn’t always struggle, Ellis says her friends were always surprised.
“They found it hard to believe,” she says. “I think many people assume that people who are in poverty started out that way but that’s not the case.”
Dr Lisa O’Brien, chief executive of The Smith Family, says stories like Ellis’s are unfortunately not uncommon, and that current financial security doesn’t necessarily predict future security.
“We hear so many stories about how families found themselves in poverty and for many of them, they had been a two income household, they were looking to buy their own home; they were what we would call a ‘normal’ type of middle class life.
“And then something happens. Someone gets sick or domestic violence rears its head in the household, the parents split and the mother, who had only been working part-time, is now supporting four kids on her own. You see how these happen and it’s tragic, and it happens a lot.”
Ellis has recently returned to Canberra, after completing her degrees in medicine and surgery at the University of Sydney; she graduated in December as a qualified doctor and starts her first rounds of internships next year. Ellis's challenging upbringing means that although she has a promising career ahead of her, she continues to live frugally and balks at spending more than $20 for anything that isn’t an essential.
Ellis wants all Australians to realise that poverty to happen to anyone, at anytime.
“It doesn’t matter what the situation is you start with, things happen in life. Life is unpredictable and to be open and understand how people can fall into these positions, is a good thing to be aware of,” she says. “Because you never knew if it’s going to happen to you or not."
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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