It has been tough since I lost my job a few years ago. But I have managed to find casual work all these years. My wife works part-time. I also do volunteering work. Unfortunately, even though we both work very hard, we live on a low-income.
We are not poor. We have a roof over our heads, and food on our table. We receive Family Tax Benefit payments from the government. As Australian citizens, we have access to Medicare benefits. We have some savings for a rainy day. Our family car is still in good condition, and so are our computers. These essential items keep us in touch with friends, so that we are not isolated. We are of course in a much better financial situation than many other Australians, such as the homeless and those living with a severe disability (and without sufficient family support). And of course our living standard is much higher than those living in low-income countries.
My education and work experience also put me in a much better position than many others. I know how to manage my finances. I can work my way through the Centrelink website to find out what benefits I am eligible for. I don’t have problems in filling out the very complicated application form for the low-income healthcare card. Even though I am a migrant, my English is good enough to talk with the Centrelink consultants on the phone.
But it doesn’t mean that living on a low income is easy. In the following I want to share my experience over the last few years, and highlight a few things that I have learned as a follower of Jesus.
The first challenge we face is how to handle stress. When will the next casual job come up? What should I do when there are two or more casual job offers? Declining offers may jeopardise future job opportunities. But at the same time it is very stressful to take on too much work, not to mention that the quality of my work will drop when doing multiple jobs. Not uncommonly, the pay is not good, and sometimes the employer does not pay on time. But I have no choice but to work for them. This can lead to disappointment and frustration. There are many other reasons for stress—such as, you never know when the next pay cheque will come, and how big (or small!) it is. But you get the picture.
The second challenge we face is downward social mobility. Our tight budget means that we have to reduce our social activities. We try not to go out for coffee, lunch, or dinner with friends, including friends at church, because even a coffee is quite expensive nowadays. We turn down invitations to go on holidays with friends. Sometimes conversations with friends can be difficult. When they talk about their new coffee machine, lounge suite, overseas holidays, going to the theatre, and their children’s special extra curricular activities, we feel left out because we cannot afford them.
None of our friends live a life of luxury. They are hardworking middle-income people who live according to what they can afford. Many of them are Christians and are generous people. But increasingly we find ourselves living in a different world. In fact, Christian conferences are beyond our budget, not to mention overseas mission trips or visiting those living with poverty outside Australia. Even though I have a PhD in Biblical Studies, and four other degrees, I need a small office-cleaning job to supplement my income. I don’t think anyone thinks that it is a shame to do such a menial task. But the fact is, we have moved down the social ladder. There is inevitably a sense of loss and isolation.
The third challenge has something to do with culture and family background. I have an East Asian background, and my father’s family is quite poor. My Aussie friends do not understand my obligation for my father’s wellbeing (including financial wellbeing), and the shame I feel for not being able to give him more money. Conversely, I don’t have middle-class Christian relatives to turn to as a last resort for help. In addition, I feel that I deprive my son of more opportunities—not just material things, but also opportunities to engage in extra curricular activities that other kids enjoy.
The fourth challenge is about religion. Increasingly I feel that individualism is a big issue in Christianity. The goals and desires of the individual are highly valued. Independence, self-reliance, and the rights of the individuals take centre stage. I do believe that personal relationship with God is absolutely important, and my own experience of faith affirms that. But personal relationship with God has little to do with individualism, where the “I” (instead of the self-giving Christ!) is the centre of everything. I find that I have to come to terms with the fact that Christianity in the West is quite individualistic, and often people don’t see that it is a problem. But the thing is, my situation has taught me that my goals and desires as an individual are no longer important (as I will explain later).
Another feature of contemporary Christianity is triumphalism—a belief that Christians always win, that they can always overcome adversity. In this belief system, there is little room for failure or defeat, let alone suffering. In fact, suffering, including financial hardship, is to be rejected as totally undesirable. I do not fit into this brand of Christianity.
So, living on a low income affects many areas of life. It has an impact on our mental and social wellbeing, as well as family life and religious orientation.
Having said all that, I have come to realise that living on a low income is by no means a sign of God’s abandonment. Nor is it necessarily a hindrance to participate in the purpose and mission of God. In the next blog post I will outline a few things I have learned in this journey.