Early years: money, poverty and socio-economic context

This is part of my series of autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes about my conversion to, and later deconversion  from, Pentecostalism.

Time frame: circa early 2003

Location: Rural Victoria, Australia 

Keywords: Rurality, poor, money, university, parenthood, Myers Briggs ISTP and INTJ, Pentecostalism, narcissistic personality disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, autobiography

Life was tough. Now, I’m not complaining. It was thirteen years ago and if nothing else, the struggles and stress of those days taught me that I am a survivor. I was just into my twenties, already a mother at an age when my university classmates were working towards their careers, socialising and imagining their futures with hope. I envied their hope. I missed those hectic and fun days when I lived with them in the campus student village; when an all-nighter meant movie marathons in the student union lounge, or cramming in last minute sociology assignments at the 24/7 computer lab. Now an all-nighter meant desperately trying to get sleep in between breastfeeding on a four hourly basis.

There were good moments, too. Again, I can’t say it enough, I like being a young mum and I don’t regret a minute of it. Yes, I wish I’d had more support in working towards my other life goals, and that I could change some of my other choices, but overall motherhood itself has been a good journey. Now I’m in my 30s, my peers are now grappling with pregnancy and nappies and preschool and vaccinations and maternal health nurses while I deal with teenagers. I just feel like having babies all looks a whole lot more complicated these days than it was when I had my two. And it wasn’t that long ago!

We – my husband, Child No.1 and I – lived just near our rural university campus. I was taking classes part time, and I have to say it was an interesting challenge taking exams two weeks after giving birth. The Husband was working towards his Bachelor of Engineering degree and at that time I was still studying towards my double degree in Arts (Journalism) and Education.

As full-time students and parents, most of our income came from the standard student stipends our government offered all people in our context. All debates about government support aside, noting that different countries have different approaches, the fact is that at the time any adult studying full time towards their first university degree was entitled to receive money to help them pay the bills, buy food and focus on study, with the expectation that they could pay back their fees in their taxes once they got work. (Which we have.) We gratefully accepted that money. We needed it to survive.

[Any hardcore capitalists reading this who think in unrealistic extremes like that people shouldn’t have economic inconveniences like children ‘until they can afford it,’ and who have deluded themselves into believing that earning money is the highest goal in life can, to put it nicely, go away: literally nothing on this blog is going to be comprehensible to you.]

However, it was just survival rations. It wasn’t enough to have any luxuries or frivolities. There are a lot of myths about how people on welfare just waste it on alcohol and drugs, and I’m sure some do; but for us we used it to help us get an education. This stipend would cover the bills, pay the rent, and pay for food. Luxuries were things like being able to afford a doctor appointment, and forget any chance of seeing a dentist or optometrist. Other essentials like clothes and fuel were few and far between. So we walked everywhere, which was fine, and once a fortnight made the drive to the next major town to buy the following fortnight’s worth of groceries for our carefully planned menus. We’d go to the fruit and veg market and the low-cost supermarket. Living in a relatively isolated university town also meant that the cost of living was low, which was helpful, and so there were no pretensions to dressing fancy nor driving shiny new cars when the best most people could afford was cheap jeans and a bicycle.

At the same time, I don’t want to romanticise it. Life is hard in poor socio-economic circumstances, and some towns in the area are among the Australian towns with the highest rates of social problems, early deaths and poverty. As uni students we had a certain amount of luxury in getting an education that helped us to reflect and think about how best to live. Not everyone had access to that kind of training in abstract thought. In my time there I met people who slept on piles of old blankets on the floor of their furniture-less houses, I met people who numbed themselves to life with all manner of cheap drugs, I met people who staggered home drunk because there was nothing to do nor to occupy the mind: no library, no cinema, no art, just a town divided between poor uni students and poor locals. The swimming pool was closed indefinitely for repairs. I’m not sure it reopened in the time I lived there. I met people whose ethnic background saw them relegated to the absolute margins, and single parents who battled valiantly to survive and did all they could to keep their own kids in school, in a town where the school only went up to the bare minimum age at which Victorian children are allowed to leave school. It was a tough place. But my four years living there was a good learning experience. I don’t think I’d trade it for anything.

I grew up in lower socio-economic circumstances, too. My dad worked his way from dirt poor farmer to factory worker to mature age university student to where he is now, a successful business owner. They paid off their mortgage, they raised us in a decent home. As a child I had third-hand clothes passed down from my cousins; by my late teens I was able to buy new clothes from the local discount factory outlet clothing store. My sister and I grew up in close connection with our extended family, many of whom lived in the local area. We had pets and farm animals and some of the most beautiful scenery in Victoria. Mum worked in the education system for a number of years. But most of their financial success didn’t happen until I was married and out of home.

My childhood was simple – a good kind of country town simple, where values like being a decent person, being self-sufficient and learning how to grow your own food and live off the land and were instilled deeply in my psyche. I knew that given a patch of land and some heirloom seeds I could wrest food from the soil. It’s a confidence-building skill to know that in worst case scenarios I could still survive. I’d just emulate my grandmother, who even now in her 80s still grows 90% of her own food in an acre-or-two-sized orchard and veggie garden. So for me, I think that as tough as it was, adapting to the trying circumstances of living as a dirt poor uni student and young parent was not as huge a shock to the system as it was for my husband.

The Husband, on the other hand, his background was that of the relatively privileged. He grew up with two brothers in the suburbs of Melbourne.

To put it in context, the average house in his home suburb currently costs AUD$731,000 (approx USD $526,000). In my hometown the same house (usually with a larger garden, too) will set you back AUD$290,000 (approx USD $208,600). In the university town we lived in, the same house would cost AUD$178,000 (approx USD $128,000). (Reference 1)  This just demonstrates, I think, the kind of marked difference in social strata that we were raised in, and what it looked like for us when we married.

His family were all deeply committed to their Pentecostal megachurch which had a congregation size larger than my hometown’s entire population. His parents’ house was almost twice the size of my parents’ house. He went to an exclusive Christian private school for most of his education. Both he and his dad owned fancy sports cars when I first met them. He thought nothing of buying a single pair of shoes that would cost more than an entire year’s worth of clothing for me.

When I went to the city with some of them, early on in getting to know his family, they yelled at me for placing a measly dollar at the feet of a homeless person – something I try to do as a matter of course whenever I go to the city, not because I’m ‘good,’ but because something in me never wants to fall in the trap of thinking that my lucky circumstances in my life somehow elevate me above those who for whatever reason are stuck freezing to death in Melbourne’s cruel winters. But no, they literally raised their voices and demanded to know why I was giving a coin – a single, pathetic gold coin that could at best cover the cost of a loaf of white bread. Didn’t I know that these people were all the same, exploiting the hard work of the struggling middle class, and so on, and so on?

In retrospect it was one of several red flag moments that something was terribly wrong here, that I really needed to immediately back away from allowing them to influence my spiritual worldview. But I was trying to get along, and my anxiety meant that speaking my mind was terribly difficult. It was a genuine shock to encounter a form of Christianity that taught that if someone was poor, it was their own stupid sinful fault. And perhaps ironically, it was the self-described “Biblical Christianity” that taught this, a unique kind of Christianity that is so wealthy it can not only buy special Bibles for every conceivable occasion, there is even a special edition Bible in which the verses on helping the poor are already highlighted for the reader! (Reference 2)

For me, living poor as a uni student was just more of the same thing. Harder than having my parents take care of the bills, of course, but it was something I could adapt to fairly readily. Having to make careful note of where every dollar and cent went. Walking instead of driving. Accepting that my clothes weren’t nice. No trips to the movies. No recreation outside of walking to  the park. And being content in the knowledge that the short-term sacrifice of getting a decent education would create more chance of the long-term reward of being a more thoughtful, rational, employable citizen. (Not that it always works out for graduates, but rather that the value of an education extends far beyond whether or not you get a job in that field afterwards.)

But for The Husband, well, it seemed that for him, everything was a massive step down. From privileged private school-educated suburbanite to impoverished rural university student. From good Pentecostal Christian boy to backsliding sinner married to a *gasp* Catholic (how could he?!). He seemed to take it as some kind of punishment for being “unequally yoked”* and of course, from his family’s point of view, I must’ve been someone pretty awfully seductive to drag him down to my level.

You know, just such an overwhelmingly attractive woman with men just tripping over themselves to get my attention that I won The Husband over just to crush him (please note the sarcasm). What was it that exposed my womanly guile? Was it my myopic vision, my off-kilter face in desperate need of orthodontic work, my extreme geekiness, my high-level introversion where hardcore human interaction meant reading in the library or sitting alone at the back of the political science lecture hall during history classes, my unkempt hair, my telling the drunk guys at uni events that I was too intelligent to condescend to their level, or was it my contempt for humans in general? (My jerk reputation precedes me, I’ve since learned it’s part of an ISTP’s many wonderful personality traits). Wait, I know – I won him over when our first “date” was me taking Mr INTJ to the farming industry expo because that was my idea of fun and I could show him all the awesome tractors and livestock displays (yes, I am a woman, stop limiting me in your narrow definition of gender roles, tractors are cool). See, as we walked hand-in-hand around the displays, pointing and laughing together at the extremist political activists who were selling their racist views at the show – as if the average farmer there woke up that day and said to him or herself, ‘Hmm, I need some advice on fencing and ragwort management and how to stop those immigrants’ – something connected between us. Our hands, yes, but also our minds. We hated the same things. What could bond someone more than that? Love? Well, yeah, I guess it could. So I’ve heard.

I digress.

At no point, whatsoever, was it assumed that he chose to marry me. I’ve since learnt that when dealing with narcs, especially religious narcs, as we unknowingly were, it’s not uncommon to be on the receiving end of “You’re not good enough for us” talk, but at the time it was pretty hurtful. Never was it noticed that The Husband and I were evenly matched in intellect, had a lot of common interests, common friends, and similar values. He was Picard to my Data. (!) Yet to his ‘church family’ I was, I think, quietly perceived as the Jezebel, the adulteress, the seductress, the Pope-and-Mary worshipping sinner who took a good Christian boy off the narrow path to assured salvation. But these are other stories for other times…

I realise now that it was a profoundly difficult experience for him in ways I simply couldn’t relate to. He told me recently that one of the best books he’s read so far that relates to these topics was Scarcity: the new science of having less and how it defines our lives (Reference 3). I haven’t read it but he has found it helpful.

I share all this to set up the context for later posts I might share on how I later experienced the way money was handled after I converted to Pentecostalism. Let’s just say for now that in my experience, being poor and Pentecostal did not mix.

1 https://www.realestate.com.au/

2 https://www.koorong.com/search/product/cev-poverty-and-justice-bible-australian-edition/9780647516669.jhtml

3 http://www.amazon.com/Scarcity-Science-Having-Defines-Lives/dp/125005611X

All links accessed 31 May 2016.

*”Unequally yoked” comes from 2 Corinthians 6:14 in the Bible. In the Pentecostal community of which I was a part, that verse is most commonly heard as a hard-and-fast rule against marrying people from outside the Pentecostal or evangelical non-mainline Protestant community. For a Pentecostal like my husband to marry a Catholic like me was considered no different to marrying any other kind of “unbeliever.” Whether or not this is the most theologically cohesive way of understanding that text is not something I can comment on. However, sociologically, it seems to me that it creates an exclusionary and enclosed community that over the generations separates itself out from the rest of society. For all the “oh you’re from a country town, you must be inbred” jokes they threw at me, the multilayered family connections within the separatist Christian community are, well, probably more inbred than a country town where genetic isolation probably hasn’t been a problem since the invention of, like, horse carriages and steam trains. And, in a great irony, it turned out that some of my husband’s recent ancestors were from the same town as I was, anyway.