In Search of Simplicity

Payments To and From the Vulnerable

It’s been revealed by the ABC via a Credit Suisse report that $90 million of Radio Rental’s $197 million in revenue has come directly from the Federal Department of Human Services. But no the offices aren’t being decked out with rented desks, computers and white goods, or flat screen TV’s and sound systems. This money is coming from Centrelink customers’ benefits via the Centrepay system.

For the uninitiated Centrepay is a Federal government payment system that allows people on benefits to have their bills deducted directly from their entitlements. It has been operating for a number of years and overall it seems to be a good system and is totally in the control of the customer. This is unlike the benefit card which has been rolled out in some of the most needy communities around Australia. This card enforces a budget direction, ie a proportion of the customers Centrelink income is put on the card and can only be used for groceries, rent, some bills etc, thus disempowering once again the most vulnerable. This was used extensively in the Howard government’s intervention.

Centrepay has become central to one of the projects I’m involved in concerning rooming houses in the City of Greater Dandenong. I recently facilitated a conversation between police, council, rooming house operators, regulators and a person with a lived experience of homelessness. One of the plethora of issues that was discussed were concerns about Centrepay. The issue was raised by an operator who was lamenting about residents who come to the rooming house, sign all the documents and rent begins to be deducted from their benefit. Then if something goes wrong or even on a whim the resident contacts Centrelink and stops the direct debit. In this particular case the person refused to leave the boarding house and as legal proceedings trod their course proceeded to trash his room. So when he was eventually evicted the owner hadn’t had rent for about 6 weeks or so and had to spend money fixing the room.

Now this becomes a wider issue than Centrepay and reflects a lack of understanding of the sector and the difficulties faced by operators on the part of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). There is a feeling that they tend to favour the resident. Which on face value sounds like a good thing, but when rooms are being trashed, I guess questions need to be asked.

As with the majority of issues surrounding vulnerable people, it is never straightforward and there are many forces at play. These include mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, extremely low self-esteem and a lack of a sense of worth, quite often acute isolation and disconnection particularly from significant supports such as family. People who find themselves in this kind of vulnerability also in many cases (though certainly not always) lack education, a sense of purpose or direction, essentially hope that anything will ever be any different. So when issues come along the survival mechanism is all too easily triggered, often with devastating results for themselves and those around them.

Coming back to Radio Rentals and their income from Centrepay. The customers using their benefits to purchase household items etc are more likely to be families that are either on low income or where a partner has become unemployed. Although this is not always the case, the ABC article tells the story of Norma a grandmother on a pension who on a whim decided to purchase a vacuum cleaner from Radio Rentals over 3 years, paying a very high interest rate on the loan (on average the consumer ends up paying 3x the retail value of the product). According to the ABC report there has been an increase in Centrepay being used to buy flat screen televisions and sound systems. This use of money is seen as discretionary spending and together with Norma’s story is perhaps where our society needs to take some of the blame.

Here in Australia, even without us knowing it, when it comes to marketing, consumerism and the like we are part of the postmodern junket. Jean Baudrillard a postmodern philosopher sees that consumerism has past through a number of crucial stages and is now a sophisticated coded system of meaning dominated by the value of the sign. So advertising of all sorts is focusing less on the products and more to what they signify. This plays into our aspirations and blurs the line between reality and fantasy. It creates a whole new system of codes and meaning (Greene and Robinson, 2008). The Coca Cola ads are classic examples where the focus is often on the group of friends having fun as opposed to the ‘brilliance’ of the product. “Buy coke, you’ll belong and it will be fun,” is the subtle message communicated.

Like for all of us, this plays into the desires of the most vulnerable, with money going straight into the pockets of organisations like Radio Rentals. Adam Mooney from the not for profit lender Good Shepherd says there is an alternative for household items. Good Shepherd provide no interest loans for fridges and other household items. Their service alleviates some of the stress for the needs, but what about the wants, how are we as a society to deal with our wants?

We tend to think that the accumulation of stuff is part of what it means to live a fulfilled life. But we forget about the law of diminishing returns and continual lure of the next purchase with its promise of everlasting happiness. We tend to think that as long as our family is ok and we are continuing to build our castle and all who reside within its walls, life will be good. But we forget there are many of our fellow human beings with hopes, dreams, gifts, skills, potentials for whom the light slowly dies. And we forget that it is better to give than receive. We tend to think that as long as we look out for number one the wealth will filter down and everyone will be ok. We forget that for the decades this thinking has been predominant it has not been the case.

So how do we address our wants and the inequality that takes root in society when those who can, pursue them? And those who can’t try to keep up? Simplicity is an ancient concept that talks of a singleness of heart and an uncomplicated life. Have you seen the stories of those that leave the busyness and complexities of everyday life for a sea-change or a tree-change, if its told well the stories can make you breathe that deep breath and leaves you almost being able to taste the sea salt air or smell the eucalyptus. I was at the Cardiologist the other day and asked him about stress and how it contributes to high blood pressure. He was somewhat on the fence, but did mention a patient who changed her lifestyle to a more laid back approach to life and suddenly her blood pressure dropped to a more acceptable level. So simplicity involves a letting go of all the clutter that we think we need, but really only pollutes our space.

Richard Foster an author and teacher suggests a few hints to help on the journey towards simplicity. This is an extract from his book, Celebration of Discipline;

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you
  • Develop a habit of giving things away
  • Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (apple is exceptionally good at propaganda he says writing from his Mac Air, checking his iphone for messages)
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation
  • Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes (like those offered by Radio Rentals)
  • Speak plainly and honestly
  • Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
  • (Richard comes from a Christian perspective and so includes the following) Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God

Strange language, I grant you. But essentially its what this blog is about, seeking a more simple world, where people are recognized for the inherent value they possess rather than for what they own or how they look. We may not be able to change the whole world, but in choosing a life characterized by greater simplicity we may just change our world and the worlds of those around us.

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