‘Even if you’re well off, life’s getting tougher,’ opined narrator David Field during this week’s third and final episode of Struggle Street. Only it isn’t. A recent study shows that the top 1% of income earners in Australia, each with an average annual income of nearly $400,000, accounted for almost exactly the same percentage of the nation’s income share in 2012 (7.7%) as they did in 2006 (7.8%). High incomes have remained stable, keeping pace with wage growth and inflation. The unemployment allowance Newstart, on the other hand, the rate of which is linked to CPI (Consumer Price Index), has fallen further behind wages over time, and is now at less than 21% of median full-time earnings. Meanwhile, food and housing costs – on which the poorest households spend more of their income than the wealthiest households do – have spiralled upwards, exposing the poorest in our community to greater financial stress. Life is getting tougher, but only for some.
Statistics are dull, hardly the basis for exciting television. Far easier to turn the cameras on the poor and let them fight and scream at each other, confirming for the viewer that poverty is ugly. And it is ugly. The subjects of Struggle Street are overweight, clammy-skinned, missing teeth; struggling with addictions and heart disease and mental illness. They live in houses that are never clean, and Struggle Street’s repeated shots of cluttered benches, dirty carpets, and dozing pets served to underline the idea that the poor are a breed apart, dumb and animalistic. Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices (such as pregnant, drug-taking Billie Jo) are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story.
Struggle Street’s total failure to address poverty as a structural outcome of our economic system meant that poverty was only ever represented on the show as a personal circumstance. The largely unnecessary subtitles and the patronising voiceover, delivered with the kind of fake working-class inflection favoured by federal politicians and tabloid news journalists (‘dicky ticker’, ‘The Druitt’), took away any remaining personal agency the show’s subjects might have held onto. Many commentators have described Struggle Street as sympathetic and complex, but I saw neither quality on display. If this is the best we can expect when it comes to the treatment of poverty on Australian television, then we have so far to go. What might Struggle Street have looked like if Mount Druitt’s residents had been given the resources and training to film themselves and to tell their own stories, without resort to a narrative framing disingenuous enough to refer to ‘you’ (‘If you lose benefits…’) when it really meant ‘them’? Can the nation’s television producers even imagine what that show might look like?
It is disorienting, to say the least, to see streets I know filmed as if they were one step short of a war zone. Some of my happiest and most vivid teenage memories are of Mount Druitt – I didn’t live there, but my best friend did. I was born in Blacktown, seven kilometres away. My entire childhood and adolescence was spent in Western Sydney, and, like anyone raised there, I know what the stigma of the region means. I see it on people’s faces when they ask me where I’m from, that quick mixture of surprise and distaste. There is a fixed idea of what Western Sydney is, and Struggle Street only confirmed it: Mount Druitt is ordinary, and it was shown as grotesque. A meaningless, repeated shot of sneakers thrown over a power line annoyed me more than almost anything else in the show, as if the abandoned shoes were a synecdoche for a whole region’s social dysfunction. Western Sydney is never portrayed with any nuance, and almost never from the inside. We are simply to be gawked at.
Watching Struggle Street filled me with shame and rage. I was ashamed of consuming the suffering of others, but my shame went beyond that. I am one generation removed from Western Sydney public housing. This gap means that I cannot presume to speak with, or on behalf of, the residents filmed for the program – I am not one of them. Thank God, thank God, I think to myself, which is exactly the reaction that this show was designed to produce. Struggle Street played on my own worst impulses to turn away, to turn off, to disown. I’m not that Western Sydney. I’m only close enough to it to feel frightened by it (What if I fall ill, what if I can’t work, what if I get evicted), and from my fear derives my shame.
It will not do. I would rather be angry: angry at this voyeuristic show, which played to every cliché of Western Sydney as a suburban wasteland; angry at a political class whose answer to the economic decimation of the region is the stoking of racial hostility (blame immigrants for stealing those non-existent jobs); angry at a self-serving mainstream media (‘Struggle Street has shone a light on those most often ignored’) which will not spend its time or resources on journalism that might ask difficult questions about this country’s class divide, and who it best serves. Struggle Street wasn’t difficult journalism, it was lazy journalism, and the storm it has created will quickly abate, leaving behind it a handful of people whose vulnerable lives were exposed to the nation for no greater end than entertainment. It is not the responsibility of homeless teenagers with brain damage and broken hearts to find the inner fortitude to ‘overcome’ their circumstances. It is the responsibility of us all to change the society that permits the ongoing existence of those circumstances.