We don’t talk a lot about class these days. Class is usually the domain of sociology professors and communists. However class or socio-economic status has a huge impact on people, especially Disabled people and neurodivergent folks.
I was brought up in what you might describe as a lower middle class family. My attitudes have always been quite middle class, despite me becoming poor and inhabiting a very different world to the one of my childhood. I spent 15 years of my life in poverty. I was homeless and lived in supported and public housing for many years. I am now quite wealthy. I have owned property and currently live in a very flash rented apartment surrounded by nice things. I have actually always liked nice things but could never afford them. I now have designer this and bespoke that and am very comfortable indeed. I would even go so far as to say I am a little bourgeois. My journey out of poverty was an unusual one involving a lot of motivation and determination and a few lucky breaks.
When I was poor I didn’t mind having to be frugal. My problem with being poor was the complete lack fo choice I had in major life decisions. Accommodation was a constant nightmare and the lack of choice had me living in all sorts of horrible places. I lived in boarding houses and mental health residential programs. I had no say over who I shared my space with and some fo my housemates and neighbours were unpleasant quite violent. I spent years being an alcoholic in order to be accepted by my neighbours – most of whom were also alcoholics.
What drove me to seek professional employment was actually being stalked by one of my neighbours. She had pursued me for many years and was violent and abusive. I realised that I needed to move out but I was on the disability pension which meant I wouldn’t be able to afford a private rental. I applied for government jobs, was successful and moved to Canberra to start a new chapter in my life.
In Canberra I and a housemate who was something of a bully. It took me a long time to work this out because the bullies I had met when I was poor were more overt in their problem behaviour. My Canberra housemate had all sorts of beautiful things and a sense of style but her life seemed to me to be quite empty. A friend who visited said my housemate ‘has nothing.’ It was interesting to compare the poor behaviour of a wealthy person with the poor behaviour of my public housing stalker. It made me realise that money doesn’t anything when it comes to a person’s character.
Socio-economic status or class is an intersectional consideration. People living in poverty form an oppressed group and there is often an overlap with other intersectional groups. Autistic people often struggle to find suitable – or any – work for a variety of reasons. This means that many of us are living in poverty. Being poor and autistic is not good. For one thing it can mean that we struggle to access a diagnosis or support as these can cost money. It can be very frustrating to be unable to secure work. Autistic people often have a lot to offer the workplace but can’t secure employment due to issues with recruitment processes or bad experiences in the workplace. Many Disabled people live in poverty de to being unable to work. I have met lots of people who are amazed that I as an autistic person with schizophrenia should have a professional job. I want a world where me having a job isn’t remarkable.
Another thing about poverty is that the idea of a sort of underclass culture. When I lived in public housing I had a friend whose partner was a carpenter. He earned as much as I didd when I first joined the public service. My money was all going into saving to buy a property but this person spent his income at the pokies and alcohol. So while he earned the same as I did his focus on what to use the money for was very different. My friend also had some attitudes about money which demonstrated a sort of cultural difference to my more middle class considerations. This friend inherited $80,000. Her sister – a public servant – said my friend should put a deposit on an apartment. My friend did not do this and for what can be seen as good reason: My friend had a three bedroom public housing flat that she could live in as long as she wanted and which had very low rent. Buying property would actually put her in a worse situation financially. Instead of putting the money on an apartment my friend spent a year going out for dinner, going to the pub and gambling. It is funny because conventional wisdom would say my friend was being foolish but she had a wonderful time.
I think attitudes around poverty can be unhelpful. We have this concept of the deserving poor. A lot of people won’t give money to beggars because they might spend it on alcohol. I tend to think that I often spend some of my salary on wine. How would I feel if someone said I shouldn’t do that? In fact nobody is going to say to a middle class public servant that they shouldn’t spend money on alcohol. So why is it OK to say that to poor people? It demonstrates a kind of paternalism around poor people. There is also that saying ‘he was poor but honest’. We don’t say that about wealthy people although many wealthy people are not honest! I feel that a lot fo the attitudes around poverty are quite paternalistic.
I am glad I am not poor at the moment, Poverty steals your confidence and your ability to have choice. I remember when I was poor I wouldn’t; go into ‘nice’ shops because I felt like a buzzer would go off saying. ‘Poor person looking at the shiny things!!!!’ and I would be ejected from the shop! Poverty did bad things to my sense of identity.