I could have written this at many times in my life, but it’s been triggered, this time around, by something as innocuous as a selfish driver. I paused in a flow of traffic to allow a car into the queue. It wasn’t her right of way, but her waiting for entrance was blocking all outgoing traffic, so someone had to do it. This infuriated the driver behind me - a middle aged man accompanied by his wife - who blasted me with his horn for twenty seconds then proceeded to tap a percussion on it for the entire time he was directly behind me. My one consolation from this experience is that I passed driver after driver who was consequently shaking their head, visibly disbelieving, or in one case, had their hands over their mouth. And it’s not like I should have expected or wanted anyone to intervene, right? Highly difficult and awkward when all parties are in their own vehicles. The separation of people when driving accounts for a huge, huge amount of driver-behavior in people who are otherwise sweet as pie. No studies, no stats. Just glum observation.
Coming back from my highly exciting outing I flick to twitter to see, in close succession, a deeply effecting article on the epidemic of loneliness (here), and it’s subsequent elaborating by the daughter of the articles subject (here). By now deeply despondent, my mostly news-and-politics feed brightly tells me that Joe Hockey intends to axe foreign aid to help repair our roads. I sat and stared at my computer for a while, before I realised that I wasn’t even really surprised anymore. I wonder whether it’s just a symptom of my advancing age, my suddenly noticing these things. What I do think is a factor is where I work, and the cross-section of society that I come into contact with in public service. These fall into roughly four categories.
1.) Pensioners. The married couples are hysterically funny. They develop decades of shorthand and inside-references that render them almost incomprehensible to those on the outside. When one of them dies - tragically often, in my line of work - the other is left to try and remember how to communicate outside that bubble. They come and see us more often, because the echoing silence at home is too much.
2.) Students. Many of the houses nearby are horribly made shacks rented out for hideous amounts to capitalise on the need for student housing. International students from all manner of places are crammed together with complete strangers and, unsurprisingly, use campus grounds and local libraries to shelter from the chaos at home. They appear more and more often in the height of winter and summer, when the house becomes unbearable due to lack of heating or cooling. They want absolutely nothing from us except our presence, and maybe the occasional nudge when they fall asleep over their textbooks.
3.) Recent Immigrants. Often young families, very often young men, sometimes teenagers. Dropped into a foreign country with no papers and no English, these are the most difficult to help. Which is frustrating for both them and us, because they are the ones that need it the most. If they’ve been granted a visa, then often it falls to them to do the legwork and rigmarole of applying for protection visas for the rest of their family. Nothing ages a sixteen year old boy more than writing pages on pages of broken english explaining why his parents are dead and his siblings are in danger. And that’s excluding photos and ID checks and carer checks and a whole lot of bits and pieces that cost money that he doesn’t have. The most common group we have would be young couples, often with a new baby, bewildered and scared and given very little in the way of guidance or integration. Very often this then morphs into the husband finding work (multiple jobs, usually, day and night shifts, doing all the jobs no one else wants) and the wife and child, scared of being at home alone, will come in and sit in the library just for the reassurance of having people around.
4.) Long term Unemployed. Some of these are in constant loops of illnesses and injury, never healing properly because they can’t afford medical care or the surgeries they need. Almost all of them smoke, their almost non-existent recreational money going into this one small pleasure that exacerbates all their other medical woes. They’re all on a waiting list for something, they’re all living in community housing and (frequently) calling the police because someone is bashing their wife in the next room.
Because these people have not worked in a substantial time, the benefits of employment beyond money (social, emotional, psychological, behavioral) have also been denied. They fall more and more behind in understanding the current requirements of potential employees. They shuffle from caseworker to caseworker, they rewrite their resumes again and again and again, write pages of selection criteria and usually don’t even receive an acknowledgement in response. Their clothing, personal maintenance and pride begins to deteriorate, and suddenly they’re at this point where a potential employer looks at them and can only think, “there has to be a reason they haven’t worked for this long”.
As rejection after rejection piles up, many hit a point where it becomes too difficult. They have some form of allowance, whether its the dole or Newstart or a disability pension, and they resign themselves to living off that. Driven indoors by lack of funds, they become increasingly isolated. Their already beaten sense of self worth makes it hard to socialise, and besides, they wouldn’t have money to go out anyhow. Stress and loneliness and lack of exercise pile up, they get sicker and sicker. If they have children, the situation complicates and you end up looking on, from the sidelines, as the kid in question starts school as a chirpy little darling and increasingly withdraws, skips school, does everything he/she can to not be at home. For the children of the LTU, there are plenty of opportunities out there if you know what to look for. But they don’t know, because they don’t care. When you grow up with isolation, poverty and depression around you, I can’t imagine where you’d summon up the hope and willpower to go looking for a way out.
And the horrible thing is that even the parents, rousing occasionally from their pit of apathy, have no real hope or belief in their children. I watched a computer illiterate mother take her nine year old son out of school every second day so he could do her internet banking and Gumtree-browsing for her, all the while calling him names and raging when he was unable to do things on the computer that are disabled in accordance to our public-use terms. Both of them moved out of the area, I don’t know where they are now. But I do know that when I next see that boy - and he was an adorable little punk - he’s going to be a little old man in a teenagers body, because I see it every month and every year.
The reason I bring up these four categories is because they are a clear cross-section of the underprivileged (and privilege doesn’t equate to wealth) that use the library. They use our resources for learning English, writing resumes, learning how to care for a new baby, learning how to start a business, learning to integrate and sometimes (quite often) just as a sanctuary. There are precious few places in civilised society where someone can sit out of the heat or cold and not be expected to buy something or believe in something, and we at least can provide that.
Thing is, we can only provide that while we justify our presence to the powers that be, and that is getting harder and harder. We don’t provide income (for the most part), we cost a lot to run, staff and stock. We tend to be very hard to provide proper security for. And more to the point, it’s very hard to concisely explain all the things I have just rambled about. And for people who don’t use or need libraries, all you can hope for is that the money-sources have some form of empathy for the plight of those who aren’t willing or able to speak up for themselves, and we can probably all assume that isn’t going to be the case.
My point (and I do have one) is that in the near future, we will see the closure of many of these kinds of spaces. As our councils amalgamate into gigantic SuperCouncils, services will be cut down accordingly. A community centre that services six suburbs will now be servicing 12, because having two community centres is deemed a waste. There won’t be any additional staff, or hours, or resources - they’ll just be pushed twice as hard. And libraries, obviously, will be the same.
I suppose I’m writing this because it offends me that the people who will suffer the most for the incoming set of policies - and it doesn’t even matter who wins, the policies are ultimately the same - have no voice to speak out against it. Immigrants lock down and weather it, because they often don’t realise that they have a right to be heard. And if they do band together and question these decisions, they get largely demonised as “ungrateful”. And the LTU - well, they’re the lepers of this current day and age. Many don’t have the resources to try and be heard, let alone the confidence and drive to try. And who would listen, even if they did? There must be a reason they haven’t worked for this long.
Therefore, sadly, the only way we’re able to help these people is to continue to try and push for the funds to help them, because no one else appears to be interested. It’s suddenly more important that we have improved roads instead of foreign aid, which I would argue is the obligation of any economically stable country and not an indulgence. We’re subject to insultingly lopsided and barbarian-grade journalism that actually (god help us) appears to convince people that we’re on the verge of economic disaster and that it’s harbingers are the immigrants coming from the north. Deja Vu.
Would this have been possible if every child was educated to an internationally acceptable level? If children learnt about the internet, communications, media and politics in the kind of way that is becoming increasingly essential, perhaps this kind of moral bankruptcy could have been halted far, far back. But with the current swing towards cuts in education, health and assistance for the vulnerable, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, if ever. More than anything, the policies shown by the two parties are shortsighted. They invest nothing for the future in favor of cheap temporary wins. Anything which will benefit our children or children’s children is off the table, since it looks like the standard now is every man for himself.
I can’t offer any solutions to this, and I’m well aware that there are a million and one factors that haven’t been taken into account here. But the stats, alone, paint a very different Australia to what we’re being presented: our economy is rock solid, we are stupidly wealthy, and we have a high standard of living. We also have contempt for the disadvantaged and a pathological lack of empathy for people in different situations to our own. As our politicians battle it out for the racist vote and campaign for more and more cuts to fund an economy which is chuffing along quite happily on it’s own and needs no help, all I can hope is that there will be enough to salvage when we next have a chance to put someone responsible in charge.