Struggling with the facts

The SBS series, Struggle Street, has focused on the individual lives of people living in Mt Druitt, a suburb in Western Sydney. It is without context, leaving particular families to wear the blame for being poor.

By looking at people in isolation from the structures that lead to poverty, Struggle Street misses the chance to challenge the idea that poverty is a personal failing rather than an outcome of policy and economic factors. The very landscape of Sydney is shutting people out of opportunities that are supposedly available for everyone. This is not an accident – political decisions make this a reality. Housing, transport, health and other services are not distributed equally, compounding disadvantage at every turn. This isn’t new: Tony Vinson’s work on Australian postcodes over the last 20 years emphasised that generational disadvantage is highly localised.

People who are the most likely to end up in poverty – young people, single parents, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and vulnerable migrant groups – are all overrepresented in Mt Druitt. One local school has 76% of its students in the bottom quarter of the income scale, and the highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people in Sydney live in Mt Druitt.

Originally, Mt Druitt was an experiment of sorts, with a model of building houses that focused on cul-de-sacs and three bedroom cottages. These large-scale public housing estates were built in the 1960s and 70s for families working in the growing manufacturing region of Western Sydney.

While Mt Druitt began as a predominately public housing area, through private sales, public housing is now only a quarter of the suburb. At the same time, eligibility for public housing has narrowed, so it is now only available for the most vulnerable populations, such as people with a mental illness and single parents. As Hal Pawson and Gethin Davison state these houses have been allowed to deteriorate because of the ‘State Government’s long-term failure to invest in its upkeep and modernization.’

Various attempts by the state government to rebuild estates like this have proved difficult, with private investment stalling, and public housing numbers being reduced.

This concentration of affordable housing, in areas without transport or employment, means people have few opportunities to earn income and access the same kinds of services and opportunities other parts of Sydney take for granted. However, none of these issues rate a mention in the SBS program. At the same time, reverse concentrations of housing wealth, adequate transport and abundant employment aren’t seen as having any individual component; they are just natural occurrences, despite a huge amount of economic and political will needed to create them.

In the first episode of Struggle Street, sixteen year old Bailee describes being homeless, raped and having depression. Her friend Erin offers to house her, but neither of the young women is depicted accessing youth, or health services, or having an expectation of support. The deficiencies in the mental health system are well-known, yet somehow they are absent from this story.

For Ashley and Peta, the consequences of a year in jail for a minor drug offence, have been catastrophic. Sentences are longer, and harsher for people on low incomes, and without legal representation. Going to prison meant that the couple lost their children, home and possessions, and had to start from scratch when they were released.

William also has combined housing, income and drug issues. After a problem with Centrelink, he has to wait for over an hour on the phone. This is a product of staff cuts and an antiquated IT system, and yet it’s William who must wait on hold to sort out problems, pay the bill and wear the consequences. Providing William with a house would solve his homelessness, but again, his homelessness appears in isolation from the Sydney property boom.

Corey, who faces jail for a small amount of ice, is typical of the disproportionate rates of both conviction and jail among disadvantaged communities. Rehab, or support seems far away, when jail is the best option for getting clean.

Each of these people wears the consequences of a political class focused on other people. The people who the political industry care about never have to worry about having enough to eat, or enough petrol to put in the car. They are people who can get a bus at the doorstep and have a safe place to sleep; people who can afford health care and have access to education.

The political decisions to ignore places like Mt Druitt, in favour of Potts Point, by keeping policies like super tax concessions and negative gearing, and avoiding inheritance or land taxes, are an insult to the idea that poverty is an individual problem. In their 2014 report, Poverty in Australia, ACOSS said that ‘budget processes and decisions, which have in recent times run directly counter to reducing poverty, and will continue to do so if they are not recast in light of these findings.’ Poverty is a choice, after all, but for governments, rather than individuals.

El Gibbs

El Gibbs is a freelance writer with an unhealthy interest in Senate committees. She has written for New Matilda, Crikey and Overland; she’s on Twitter at @bluntshovels and blogs at

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  1. Thanks for pointing this out El Gibbs, what a breath of fresh air! Compelling documentaries that offer no explanation of ‘how’ things came to be this way and the policies that KEEP it this way only drive a bigger wedge between the ‘subjects’ of the tv shows and the ‘viewers’ or in other words, between the haves and have nots. I’ve was listening to radio commentators this morning and the call ins and the consensus is something along the lines of “how terrible,” “glad it’s not me,” and “my tax is going to supporting a meth habit.” It’s not a useful dialogue. If some of the infrastructure and policy issues that you have pointed out were actually emphasised, then viewers have a chance to channel compassion into political pressure and social movement. Instead, it’s entertainment. We have our fill, shake our heads, and then go watch MasterChef. We are sensationalising the most vulnerable in our population.

  2. I’m a bit perplexed by the notion that documentaries have to provide a framework or context. They rarely do. We have been witness to so many dehumanising and often gruesome images of non-white poor people in documentaries and news stories- be it half burning bodies on the ghats of Varanasi, or starving African children – that it’s a bit rich to be defining what a good documentary should be doing when the subject matter is poor and white. I applaud the bravery of the producers of Struggle Street for turning the cameras on a subject rarely seen on our screens. Because, let’s get real, poverty ain’t just a Third World phenomena.

    1. I agree. It’s a documentary. A piece of provocative television (Overland all for a bit of provocation? Or is it now part of the echo-chamber?)
      I think the author of this piece may have mistook Struggle Street for an episode of Behind the News.
      Having grown up in an economically depressed town, I found it a pretty sympathetic and realistic. There’s only so much you can do in a couple of hours, without seeming didactic and naff.
      There are always some who will view such shows in a way that reinforces their prejudices, both right and left leaning.

  3. I agree with Suparna. The producers of SS showed life as it is in the raw for those living on the margins,lives that most of us have little contact with, and they did so in an revealing and generally sympathetic way. As Suparna notes, the tragic results of injustices heaped on to those in the ‘third world’ are constantly presented to us without ‘context’ and little empathy. How we respond is up to us. We can either turn to MasterChef or we can read, research, discuss and act with empathy and a sense of justice. Lecturing is unlikely to be productive.

  4. Television: it is vapid. So why all this outpouring of elitist posturing? TV is the lowest common denominator. It is titillation and pretentious subterfuge at mimicking reality through myopic filters.

  5. Just tweeted your article because although I think the point about over-expecting from documentaries might be valid, I don’t think your view point gets air-time and should do. Thanks for writing so clearly and well.

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