"Were there, indeed, a sure appeal to the mercies
of the rich, the calamities of the poor might be less intolerable."
According to a recent UNICEF report fully ten percent
of Australian children are living in poverty. Wheetbix kids with
holes in their clothes, not enough nutritious food, precious few
holidays and parents who constantly worry about money. Supposedly,
by 1990, no Australian child was to be suffering.
But Hawke's election winning promise was not so much
broken as difficult to reach in the first place without thoroughly
changing the way that our society redistributes its resources.
As a society we have made the decision to allow children
- customarily regarded as the most vulnerable and the most in need
of protection - to suffer through poverty. We have decided that
we will pay one of the lowest rates of tax in the Western world,
thereby making the 'safety net' that's supposed to kick in when
you're on the bottom rung of the ladder full of holes. We'll crow
for five minutes when a Royal Commission 'exposes' the children
living on the streets, hooked on heroin and selling their skinny
bodies. Gays will do this as well as straights. Women as with men.
Very little will actually change for the kids. Politicians get away
with incapable promises because we let them.
Given how we treat these 'innocents,' what hope for
those PLWHA (still regarded by many as society's outsiders) also
doing it tough?
No governmental savior is going to ride in on a white
horse dispensing largesse to PLWHA. Especially Costello's demon
barbers. And there's not a lot of swinging gay voters swingable
through the pork barrel. Especially for this government. Forget
However governmental funds, in fact dosh itself,
is only the end product of solutions. What should come first before
the position papers and the trips to Mater Wooldridge is a shift
in how we regard the issue.
Solutions to poverty are just as crucial to PLWHA
survival as the best antiviral.
Study after study has shown that welfare (or the lack
of it with its accompanying mental burden) and health is linked.
Scientists have been trying to prove for nigh on sixty years that
there is a link between unemployment and ill-health. Proof is difficult
because of competing factors and massive resistance by governments
and corporations to the implications of such proven links. Common
sense and most people's experience suggest that a constant concern
about bills shows itself in immune system weakness. The juggling
act involved in having any sort of lifestyle on the pension, let
alone an expensive gay one, damages the toughest. Problems with
drug and alcohol use can be another side-effect, as can the impact
on use of treatments, access to services and involvement in community
activity (all made more difficult by being poor with the shame and
isolation that comes with it). Taking care of HIV illness also cost's
money, most of which is not refundable. Good nutrition (one third
more than 'normal'), exercise, alternative treatments … all cost,
and sometimes a lot. Add in vital new technology like viral load
tests and there's nothing left for the rent.
Younger people (and that's most PLWHA) don't always
have the life skills to cope. Those that do can access the best
and most appropriate services, drugs and support. Many, maybe most,
don't and we end up with two classes of PLWHA. Classic' have-and-have-nots'.
"Living in a state of permanent impoverishment contributes
to stress and a view of life as futile. Combining these psychological
factors to the inability to properly nourish and nurture the body
ultimately hastens disease progression," contends the National Association
of People Living With HIV/AIDS (NAPWA).
Up until very recently there has been a reactive,
cover-the-gaps response to poverty from affected communities that
has - somehow - kept one-step ahead. A lot of this has been to do
with the numbers needing assistance being containable and that so
many died. Now people aren't dying when they're supposed to and,
for many, were told they would. They're living longer or simply
not dying! For a lot of people (and most HIV+ people in Australia
have progressed to >500 CD4), they've retired and the income is
the pension. Super or other funds have been spent - because they
were told they were going to die. So, many thousands are faced with
the potential, if the possibility of the new state of treatment
proves correct, of years of low incomes and all its repercussions.
The community's response, particularly as charity,
is squeezed. 'Compassion fatigue' has struck and volunteer levels
are low. We need new ideas and leadership but most of all a shift
in attitude to the issue.
Poverty isn't sexy. It's not about 'geewhizz!', or
magic tricks with test tubes. There's little career advantage in
a devotion to its solutions. As one activist frankly explained to
me (and I paraphrase), 'there's nothing personally to gain in campaigning
on this issue for me. I'm not poor. So I'm only interested in it
at all through the goodness of my heart.'
Poverty is perceived as immutable, 'something society
will always have to live with.' And, after all, "'they' get so much
government largesse anyway? They have ACON and all the rest."
This 'mindset' is what we need to cut through. For
every problem there is a solution, as they say. As PRIDE Executive
Director Bronte Morris put it to the recent public forum on HIV-related
poverty, "when one individual or group of people decide to do something
about an issue or a problem it becomes one of the most powerful
tools in the process of awareness and change. It is logical, it's
practical and it is easy to achieve. It is only inhibited by money
or the energy level within the group."
The forum threw up a host of possibilities … some
of which have been 'tooled,' others still needing commitment and
a buddy system between the salaried and the poor;
support for Manna Pantry;
work opportunities, an employment service;
regular coverage in our media of basic services;
changing attitude in 'straight' services;
opportunities for complaints and hence feedback and
learning of gaps.
The skills and I believe the will to implement these
ideas are out there. The recent debate (come furor) around this
issue has thrown up new people - like the Gay Business Association)
who are more than willing to help, they just need to now how and
My particular beef is with information provision.
It could be a lot better and I think it's key. It's the quickest,
cheapest and most effective way of reaching the most people. It's
particularly useful at reaching the unreachable and the disadvantaged
(if you do it properly).
Talkabout's forthcoming Contacts Booklet is but a
start. What I'd like to see is a 'survival booklet.' It would have
good, basic, plain English info on nutrition, health, treatments,
stress, dealing with doctors, exercise, activism … It would have
lots of cartoons, which is the best way to communicate and especially
good for people with low literacy or a poor grasp of English. It
would have progress charts and mini-questionnaires. Nothing fancy,
no need to look like Outrage. It would simply be useful.
Most of this information is already out there. It's
also been compiled in books available overseas. But, because of
the way our health services are structured, it's never been pulled
together here. Everyone's produced their own booklet for their own
territory. Mass duplication and the result is a wall full of flyers.
This is the age of the information superhighway for
And we, our communities, have these skills. Many are
the queens and dykes and associated types lurking in media. Let
them come forward.
Let the debate rage. More publicity. More personal
stories. More places for people to help. We created what we've got
to solve some problems and we can do it again.
We were poor when I was young, but the difference
then was the government didn't come around telling you you were
Time 7 Jul 86 Ronald Reagan