I don’t feel comfortable using the antiquated phrase “the deserving poor” in my day to day work but it’s an interesting concept to toss around when reflecting on how welfare services work. If you spend time meditating on the phrase it doesn’t take long before you find yourself diving headlong into the power plays at work in welfare services. Who makes that decision about whether or not a person deserves to be a member of the “deserving poor”? Oh dear, it’s a squeamish term that we don’t like to use anymore but the power balance it represents is still secretly there in the minds of pretty much everyone: “Some people deserve to be helped (but others don’t – shh, don’t say that bit out loud!). I am confident in my own wisdom to judge where people sit on the scale of deserving.”
Today was my third day of interviewing for our research on food insecurity. I traded a day with my co-worker and covered her interviews at the community centre in Campbelltown. After finishing my load of four interviews I felt bleak and wanted to cry. The first three were stressful enough but the fourth left me feeling empty, standing along in the room after the participant left with my heart in my mouth and a headache.
No specifics of course, I think writing a public post detailing the experiences of participant number four will definitely breach confidentiality. All I will say is this: as the interview progressed and her story come out in bits and pieces I realised that the young woman in front of me could be me in only a few years. Her life had been so normal. And now it is so incredibly not normal. It’s actually incredibly awful. Deserving poor? I knew I shouldn’t be labelling anyone with such awful labels but I couldn’t help it!
At the end of the interview we hung around waiting for another worker to give her some extra food to take home. She asked me about the survey – how long was it going for and how was I finding it? This was a first. No other participant had ever asked me about the survey beyond their involvement.
“It’s interesting,” I said. “We’ve been going for a few weeks and we’ve been all around Sydney and the Illawarra”.
“Doesn’t it get draining? You must hear a lot of terrible stuff.”
I thought back to the other participants I had interviewed, mentally ticking them off and trying to work out how to answer the question without giving too much away.
“It’s interesting, and it does get draining sometimes. And you get surprised by what drains you. Sometimes people are in the worst situation but they are really resilient. Others are just at the bottom. It’s like your personality is almost as important as your budget for getting through the situation”.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “It makes a difference”.
Eventually her food parcel came and I went back into the interviewing room to pack up. I paused at the desk and the weight of what had just happened hit me like a wave. I had spent the whole interview struggling with my feelings. I’d tried all the time to listen openly and without judgement but I couldn’t help doing some very naughty things: firstly over-identifying with her and then flipping around and labelling her: she was “deserving poor”, deserving of anything and everything Anglicare can give her to help. And then she had turned around and offered me support and a listening ear – the potential for me to share the burden of all the stories I have taken on in these interviews. Who was holding the power? Who was providing the support? My heart was heavy with her story but now it was simultaneously freed and weighed down lower knowing that this woman is out there in the world, giving out of her poverty so to speak, looking out for the emotional wellbeing of others while she herself is on the brink.
I’m glad it was the last interview for the day. I got back in the car and hurtled back towards the city with Everybody Hurts by REM blaring on the stereo and garbled prayers in my mind. How do welfare workers do this every day?