Julie Goodwin knows what struggle is. She has lived it, breathed it and walked side by side with it more than once during her life.
Among the clearest and most poignant of her childhood recollections is an indelible memory of a time when her mother, Marlene, battled to put food on the table each night.
“When I was little, Mum was on her own for a time while we were growing up,” recalls Julie, one of Australia’s most recognised and popular cooks. “She endured a lot of struggles. I clearly remember one Christmas when we were living in a flat in Normanhurst on Sydney’s Upper North Shore, and there was a knock at the door. Mum opened it and there was someone from the St Vincent de Paul Society holding a big Christmas hamper in their arms.
“Mum never knew how she came to their attention or who told them where we lived, or even how they knew we needed a hamper. Later, she told me it was a great relief because we had something to put on the table on Christmas Day, but she also told me that at the same time it was a huge humiliation, receiving charity. That had a stigma to it, but the truth is that she had two little kids and she was on her own.”
Those childhood experiences of her mum’s daily battle to survive helped shape Julie Goodwin. They gave her an understanding of what it is like to never have enough to make ends meet, an empathy with the underdog, the disadvantaged and the undervalued, and a clarity about their lives on the poverty line.
Yet, for all of Julie’s life experience, nothing prepared her for the poverty and deprivation – as well as the stoic determination – that she encountered when she agreed to take part in a confronting new television series from SBS, Could You Survive on the Breadline?.
The series, which begins airing on November 17, comes at a crucial time in Australia’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and our longest and most crippling lockdowns.
The series also comes at a point where the federal government has announced that it is bringing its COVID disaster assistance allowances to an end, to draw payments back into line with pre-pandemic JobSeeker levels – an announcement that has caused widespread anxiety among those who lost their jobs because of the lockdowns.
To explore what it is like to live on this controversially meagre financial support – JobSeeker can leave people with as little as $40 a day to pay for rent, food and everything else intheir lives – Julie and two other commentators were asked to immerse themselves in the experience, living for nine days inside Australia’s notoriously challenging welfare system and trying to make ends meet.
Julie moved from her home on the NSW Central Coast, where she also runs a cooking school which was until recently closed because of the NSW lockdown, to Campbelltown in south-western Sydney, a suburb with high numbers of unemployed people– 50 per cent higher than the national average, in fact.
She is a woman in her 50s, which puts her in the highest demographic for being homeless in Australia.
“I have been involved in charity work for a long time,” says Julie, who was once a youth worker in a juvenile detention centre. “I have also been involved with charities for a long time. In fact, I met my husband Mick at a St Vincent de Paul youth group when we were teenagers, and I have a deep affinity for the plight that some people find themselves in.
“I feel like I know something about poverty in Australia and about the people who experience it, but it is a completely different thing to think you know about someone else’s life than to immerse yourself and live it. It’s a complete reversal of perspectives, from the outside looking in to the inside looking out. And it’s not the way most people think.”
Julie was given the keys to emergency accommodation, the same accommodation that any woman without a roof over her head may find herself in. She also had access to a small car for transport, but she paid for petrol as well as food out of her $40 a day allowance.
Her first visit to a supermarket cost $29 for a chicken, some rice, broccoli, some paper plates and plastic cutlery, and a small plastic rice cooker for her microwave, as there was no cook top in her room.
“That’s a pretty modest shop by anybody’s estimation,” she says. “Even so, it cost me most of my day’s money. It really made me start to think about how difficult this was going to be, especially when you consider there were so many things I didn’t have to pay for, such as registration and insurance and rent. That suddenly makes a $29 shopping bill a big cost, but I had to have food and something to cook and eat it with.”
A part of Julie’s journey included being introduced to people who live their lives inside the welfare system. She visited a couple named Debe and Ron to spend the day and help where she could.
Ron, a former factory manager, suffers from a severe form of dementia known as Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which mainly affects people aged in their 50s and 60s. That means Ron can’t communicate or feed, clothe or use the toilet himself.
Debe is his full-time carer, and they survive on Ron’s disability pension plus Debe’s $425 per week carer’s payment. She puts in about 120 hours a week caring for Ron’s needs. But as Ron is permanently disabled and requires round-the-clock care, Debe pays another carer for an additional 30 hours a week. It means that in caring for her husband, she earns around $3 an hour, or $360 a week, from which she pays for gas, electricity, rates for their home and other sundry costs.
“Debe was a craft teacher before Ron developed dementia,” says Julie. “But she can’t do that now because she devotes all her time to caring for Ron. Their story resonated with me so deeply because they are a married couple who have been together for a long time, and they adore each other.
“Ron is one of those people who was loved by everyone around him, and now his life is so small. He can’t even feed himself. I felt as though that could be me and my husband, Michael. We adore each other, we are about and busy in the community, and we love nothing more than having our families around us. That could be us. One of us could get ill and then what path would our story take?
“Debe told me that she had packed away Ron’s only suit because he’ll never wear it again. Her arts and crafts materials are all stored away because she can’t use them anymore. Just being in that home with them and seeing them surrounded by the debris of their former lives was heartbreaking.
“She told me that dealing with Ron’s dementia means that she is now grieving for his loss even though he is still alive. Having to let go of your life together while your husband is still in a bed in the lounge room and while he is still the largest presence in the house is almost beyond my comprehension. It’s so visceral, like a punch in the guts.”
As if Debe doesn’t have enough to deal with, she relies on a food bank for a food box. It costs her $8 a week.
“I think it’s criminal that the welfare they are on is not enough for them to eat properly,” says Julie. “I felt so impotent and frustrated on her behalf, because we’re not talking about someone who can ‘have a go to get a go’, are we? She is already working harder than most people can even conceive of, and her life is not going to change, with no prospect of relief. You are not talking about someone who just needs to try a bit harder, who just needs to take advantage of the opportunities this country has to offer.
“When you look into that home and see what is going on there, to say things like that is offensive. Those statements come from people who live far away in privilege and who have no idea what it is like to live like that.”
Julie says that working on the series was transformational.
She was asked to accompany a man as he walked the streets looking for discarded cans and bottles so he could supplement his welfare payment and put food on the table.
“We were literally sorting through garbage on the streets just to get a few extra dollars,” she says, overcome and suddenly crying at the memory. “When Michael and my kids were little, we would save our bottles and cans to cash them in at the ‘Return and Earn’, but that was like a game so we could save up enough to buy a new telly.
“This is something people do because they have to, because they need the cash to live – having to hit the streets and look for stuff that others have thrown away just so you can have a few more cents. It’s hard to comprehend that this happens on the streets of Sydney in a country as rich as Australia. It’s wrong.”
Julie says the series will open people’s eyes to the stark realities about need, poverty and inequity in Australia.
“You asked me why I did this, and that’s why,” she says. “To help shine a light on something that has been going on for far too long. It’s not just about cash in your pocket. Living this way has an impact on every aspect of your life – your personal connections, your work, your self-esteem, your anxiety levels, your enjoyment of life. It impacts everything about you.
“How do you find the positivity and self-confidence to front up for a job interview and be at your best if the only clothes you have to your name are the ones you’ve been wearing every day for the past two years?”
These new experiences have also opened Julie’s eyes again.
“When Mick and I started out, we had a mortgage and we struggled to pay it,” she recalls. “We worked all the hours that God gave us to pay that mortgage and make ends meet. We had quite a long time in our lives when we were living hand-to-mouth.
“I took in ironing, I delivered pamphlets, I cleaned houses, I sewed things and sold them at the markets, I sang at functions and was a clown at kids’ parties. I’ve lived that experience, but even having been through that, I forgot how hard it could be.
“I forgot what it was like living hand-to-mouth and pay cheque to pay cheque. To see that again and see it taken to its extreme is an incredibly humbling experience. It used to be how I lived, but I allowed it to become dormant in me. It was confronting.”
It also brought Julie’s own mental health struggles into focus. It’s now been two years since she endured an emotional breakdown brought on by stress and overwork. She has spent almost all her time since then concentrating on getting well and putting her life on track, but it’s a daily effort that isn’t yet finished.
“I am now two years on from my big realisation that I was in a state and had problems to deal with,” says Julie. “And it has not been an easy or a linear journey. Complete wellness is something I am still working towards. I would describe it as learning to walk again. I might say, ‘I’m better now’ and take off running, but the universe tells me quickly that I can’t.
“It’s not a straight line with an upward trajectory. It’s more a wavy line with highs and lows. But I am committed to doing the things I need to do. I swim in the ocean every morning. I do all the things that add balance to my life and I know that I am on the path to being well again.
“There was a lot of concern about me doing the series for that reason, but it was also one of the major reasons I agreed to do it. I couldn’t pass up a chance to help get such an important message out there. I’d have been asking myself, ‘If I can’t do that, why am I here?’. I had to say yes to that.
“Let’s provide the basics, let’s help lift each other up, let’s help each other be safe and sheltered and fed. Let’s find a better, kinder world. That’s what we all need.”