Queues were a symbol of financial inequality during the pandemic — and now, as we head into an uncertain future

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of new faces have started to show up at food banks across Sydney. Trembling, they apologize to explain why they are in the queue: “I swear I’m not lazy”, “I have a job”, “I used to give here”. The folks in bright yellow t-shirts at Waterloo’s OzHarvest Market do their best to assure them it doesn’t matter anyway; They are welcome. They hope to return.

Often they do, but in some cases the shame of relying on the kindness of strangers to put a meal on the table is too much to bear. In the few minutes it takes for a volunteer to slip inside, a man who seconds earlier disclosed it was his first time there disappeared from the back of the building empty-handed.

Others approach Eliza, the Waterloo market manager, as she returns home by public transport in her OzHarvest t-shirt. “Are you there tomorrow?” If I go through the back door, will you help me? they ask, desperate to avoid queuing in a line they feel they don’t belong in.

In some ways, queues have become a symbol of financial inequality during the pandemic — and now, as we emerge into an even more uncertain future. And it’s not just the misplaced shame of needing help, but the time it robs the people who make it up.

Think back to the early days of the COVID lockdowns – one of the most memorable scenes was the immediate winding lines around the Centrelink buildings.

People wait outside the Centrelink office in Marrickville, Sydney in March 2020. (PA: Danny Casey)

Overnight, people who had spent their whole lives working found themselves out of a job, not knowing how they could pay their mortgage, their rent or their gas. They came up with a similar refrain: I never thought this would happen to me.

Now it’s a different beast pushing people to the brink and into poverty: the rising cost of living caused by record inflation.

But again, we see the lines. People line up 40 minutes before the food bank opens. Lines bulge from outside rental inspections, with everyone desperate for a place to call home in a housing market that’s getting tighter and more expensive. And soon, queues in voting booths as Australians vote for the party he hopes will make their lives easier.

The time cost of being poor

The slower pace of the pandemic has made many of us reflect on how we measure a successful life. A global wave of workers have chosen to quit their jobs, seeking greater flexibility and time away from the office.

But these people are usually not on the poverty line. They don’t spend their time trying to survive.

“When we’re so busy trying to survive, paying to pay, meal to meal, we don’t have the ability to make plans for the future that might help us thrive,” says Dr Liz Allen, demographer at ANU who has lived the experience of poverty and homelessness.

“Time is experienced differently when you experience this kind of deprivation. Stealing a phrase from U2 is like running to a stop, you’re going somewhere but you’re not moving forward.”

Whether it’s a construction worker putting in long days hoping to make a living, people taking on second jobs to support their families (the highest number since 1994), of renters desperately looking for a home they can Actually afford those who spend their weekends on back-to-back inspections, single parents without access to childcare, NDIS participants caught in an endless loop of paperwork to avoid losing their payments, or those who travel more an hour to feed – it costs a lot of time just to survive.

And that’s not to mention the little inconveniences that swallow up a day. Don’t have a car and can’t afford Uber? Public transport will take twice as long. When ordering in or going out for dinner hasn’t been an option for a long time, how long does it take to find a way to turn a basket of groceries you didn’t choose into three meals a day for an entire family ? When no dollar can be spared, how long does it take to budget a household? How long do you spend on hold with Centrelink?

It is time that is taken away not only from paid work, but also from raising children, exercising, hobbies, sleeping and planning for the future. It is time taken away from life.

Queuing up to survive

There is no easy way to categorize people who line up at the food bank. A 60-year-old former accountant who is on JobSeeker. An elderly Chinese woman who lives in nearby public housing. University students are struggling to stay afloat in a booming rental market. The people who, in many cases, followed the rules of the “try, try” playbook and yet found themselves choosing between buying food or medicine that week.

In recent weeks, the Waterloo market has gone from around 1,400 baskets of food a week to around 1,700. Many of these new people have never relied on food aid before. Many thought they never would.

A line of socially distant people with their backs to the camera stand next to a brick building.
Before the Waterloo market opened on Saturday morning, dozens of people had already started queuing. (ABC News: Maani Truu)

“It’s a new experience that affects different types of people; people who work, people who have full-time jobs, who pay their rent, but everything else is so much more expensive, they have to choose between drugs or food, or rent and food, or transportation and food,” Eliza says.

“We see new people, people who never had to think about it, suddenly think about it, and it’s scary.”

So far, the federal election campaign has been dominated by talk of the rising cost of living. And for good reason: according to the ABC’s Vote Compass survey, it was ranked among the top three issues for voters, alongside climate change and the economy.

But talking points about inflation and interest rates provided by politicians on gigantic salaries seem far removed from the reality on the ground; where it’s not possible to give up $6 of white apartments to save for a house, because they were never in budget to begin with.

Mary, who did not wish to use her surname, was among those queuing at Waterloo market on a dreary Thursday morning just weeks before the election. The food bank is located in the shadow of several monolithic social housing towers. When asked if she lives there, she reveals that she lives in Lakemba, a 40-minute drive away.

Paper bags filled with vegetables.
The baskets of fresh produce distributed at the Waterloo market. For some, it’s the only food they have access to for the week. (ABC News: Maani Truu)

But the 60-year-old doesn’t own a car, an expense she can no longer afford with her JobSeeker payments. Instead, she commutes by public transport every week. “That’s how desperate I am,” she said. “To be able to have a bag of food that will supply you for the week, you do – and I’m sure there are others who do too.”

Eliza explains that many of their regulars travel long distances, from as far away as the Blue Mountains or just north of Wollongong, as this is often the only food they will have access to for a week.

In an age of convenience where our phones can deliver takeout, groceries and transportation on demand, the story of one person commuting over an hour to pick up a basket of fresh produce paints a real picture. very different.

Is anything going to change?

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have both promised better times if elected.

The question then is for whom?

What many say is the first step in reducing inequality, increasing unemployment benefits by $46 a day, has not been achieved by either side.

“Success for Australia means everyone is on board… [but] the reality in Australia is that you are born poor, you are likely to live a life of poverty, and that passes on to your children,” says Dr Allen.

“We have to solve this problem. There are enormous economic benefits for the nation, to grant these opportunities – this gift of time.”

James V. Hayes