Essay

Imperfect bodies of the poor

POOR PEOPLE'S BODIES have always told stories about poverty's origins and remedies. In their own accounts, poor people say their bodies often fail them. But in the stories that are told about them, their bodies more often signal defects of character and effort and even betray them as frauds.

Indeed, the imperfect bodies of the poor are an intriguing barometer for a century's interpretations of inequality and injustice. In the 1920s and 1930s, Melbourne's early social workers filled their case notes with tales of evasion and deception. Casting themselves as detectives on the trail of "mendicants", they helped to cement an understanding of poverty in which "paupers" threatened always to overcome the kindness of their benefactors. In recent years, tales of prematurely dependent, overly fertile, obese or suspiciously frail bodies burdening the taxpayers have played an important role in bolstering the case for early 21st-century welfare reform. In between, the physical sufferings of the poor were taken more as a symbol of a collective failure to protect people against the consequences of illness, infirmity and lack of opportunity.

 

CURRENT DISCUSSIONS OF poverty offer one of the best examples of why history is an essential component of the vigilance upon which justice relies. Without broad-based historical knowledge, it has proved easier to renew the harsh language of blame, denial and disdain. Those who speak loudly of welfare cheats and the need for welfare reform may not copy the exact terms of 70 or 80 years ago, but they seem to share the sentiments. "Necessary gratitude" has become "mutual obligation"; "mendacity" has turned into "welfare dependence", and the "undeserving" have become the "non-compliant". People are still said to be "truly in need" and there remain more or less clumsy ways of trying to differentiate the worthy from the unworthy poor.

In 1931, with perhaps a quarter of Melbourne's people living in hardship, one charity official wrote about "beggar armies", a city "riddled" with "cadgers of all types and ages" and streets "infested" with begging children. Seventy years later, with perhaps 15 per cent of Australians lacking sufficient income to avert persistent insecurity, those responsible for public welfare trumpet the effectiveness of cheat-catching compliance regimes. In the meantime, social security, once a chief responsibility of governments, has gone the way of social justice.

It is important to dwell in the past of meanly measured doles and indignities that can be glimpsed in the case files created by Melbourne's Charity Organisation Society (COS). The COS was founded in 1887 to co-ordinate various benevolent groups and to prevent the indiscriminate charity that was thought to encourage pauperism. By the 1920s, it was one of the city's largest welfare agencies. One of its main functions was to check the eligibility of applicants for free medical and dental treatment or charitable support, and it also worked closely with child welfare and other public departments. Claimants of all kinds were interviewed at the COS office, where initial judgements were made: "seems deserving", "not sure she is telling the truth", "a strange and complicated story". Other people came directly to the COS waiting room wanting work, a few shillings, a little food or a bed for the night in one of the city's charity hostels. They, too, were investigated. Inquiry officers – sometimes called case workers and investigation officers in the 1930s – sallied forth to check the accuracy of the tales collected each day. These officers were all women, the younger being trained and mentored by older workers. They spoke to neighbours, teachers and local shopkeepers, as well as interviewing applicants in their homes.

The officials of the COS, and especially its secretary, Stanley Greig-Smith, promised that such methods would protect Melbourne from "armies" of beggars, frauds and "simulators". Amid so many liars, finding the truth was at once the most important and the most difficult task. The case record became the most important tool, as charity tended toward "scientific" social work and what Greig-Smith termed the "more nearly perfect development of case investigation". By the 1920s, each record had become a meticulous profile of the claimant. It opened with a story, the details of which were tested by further investigation. The case workers added documentary material, such as letters from clients or other agencies, and kept a detailed record of each conversation and encounter. A well-kept record was the proof that relief had been deserved, that the need was genuine and that poverty's temporary remedy had not stifled self-reliance. It described and prescribed the proper obligations between needy applicants and those who judged them.

Some records are the bare account of claims that proceeded no further. Other cases were routine checks of "character" for money-lending agencies or hospitals. But about a third involved repeat visits and investigations, sometimes over a year or several years. The most detailed brought in new characters and scenarios, introduced unanticipated twists and revealed, triumphantly or forgivingly, the client's lies and fabrications. The case record is often a story of professional accomplishment, ending in a client's gratitude or the successful detection of the slyly dependent. With increasing frequency in the 1930s, some workers wrote of insufficient resources to meet "the general Depression" and of trying to stem demoralisation and disaster with a few shillings, a blanket or a "provident loan".

 

THE MORE THAN a thosuand case files I have read provide an intimate portrait of hardship. The wellsprings of poverty are familiar: large families, unemployment and low wages, illness, old age, redundancy and disability. People normally began their accounts, however, with the frailties of their bodies. Theirs were the telltale ailments of long-term insecurity and inadequate protection. Their teeth were so bad that they could no longer chew solid food. They were diabetic and couldn't afford to replace the bread and cakes that filled them up with the nourishing food they needed. They had chronic bronchitis from damp, cold houses. They were going deaf but hearing aids cost too much money. Their newborns struggled to thrive on the wages of a casual labourer or a shoe-factory worker. Routine medical help was a luxury.

The rent of an unheated and unhealthy room in inner suburban Carlton took up half of a pension, so old people and invalids lived in chronic pain. Some drank their pensions away; others, unable to cope with bad teeth or bad eyes, asked for help. If they could be proved deserving, they waited a year – perhaps two years when demand was high – for free treatment at the Dental Hospital. If thorough investigations ascertained that there were no children, grandchildren or friends who could contribute one or two shillings, they joined the queue for cheap spectacles from the Eye and Ear Hospital.

This was a past in which all but the very comfortable suffered for their incapacities. In the absence of adequate public investment in their care, poor people paid an especially high price for their weaknesses. There were lonely old men, broken by hard work at 40 or 50, in chronic pain from the labourer's bad back and bad knees. There were jobless drifters of 19 or 20, hard-eyed and bitter before their time, along with drinkers who were too sober or too troublesome for the inebriates' homes. Some had weak minds, like the "Russian secret service count" who had survived a torpedoed troopship but then turned to alcohol. In the 1920s, the First World War still rumbled through Melbourne; fathers died of wounds that never healed, while other men still heard the guns and struck out at their families or at themselves. There were children dying in agony from tubercular spines and hips. There were men of 25 who were too weak from rheumatism or chronic asthma to earn a living, and women, worn out by hard work and a poor diet, whose bodies failed them before they reached middle age. Then came the crisis of the 1930s, picking off skilled workers, independent women and respectable clerks, lengthening unemployment into years and drawing many families into a cycle of rural relief work, tramping, sustenance and slums that would be broken only by the Second World War in 1939.

 

THE COS INQUIRY officers grew very familiar with the streets and lanes of working-class Melbourne, though they did not live there themselves. We know their names, but the records that might tell us more are hard to find. There are hints in their notes: the trams or trains they caught from home, their meetings with other charity people at weekend church socials, even the insults some of their clients hurled at them. Some were the daughters of clergymen and schoolteachers, while others' parents owned shops. They were Protestants and church people. They were not rich but comfortable; often, I think, in appearance and reputation rather than substance. They lived in good if not grand suburbs. They were not married. Several made a career of the COS and worked there for 30 years or more.

The dictates of "scientific charity" – especially ensuring that help was given in the exactly right degree to an undeniably deserving person – set these women a difficult task. The secretary and the executive committee may have believed that the deserving and the undeserving could always be distinguished. Yet some workers struggled to preserve those certainties in the face of actual poverty. Each encounter with an applicant involved difficult negotiations over the "true" predicament. Each demanded a careful exchange of questions and answers in which workers struggled to unearth secrets and lies. The most difficult problem was proving entitlement beyond a doubt. Workers probed for details, asked local shopkeepers and interviewed neighbours. Some wrote in their case notes of how they had trapped people in a lie, or helped a shameful applicant to admit the truth. Yet words could be deceptive, especially when they were spun into stories. If people could learn how to appear deserving, if they could mimic the truly needy, then they might receive something for nothing.

Different COS workers came up with different solutions to that problem. Some developed a kind of casework that took poor people at their word and trusted that their stories, if not absolutely accurate, indicated real problems. As the weight of investigation increased during the 1930s, others relied on a shorthand of easily defined "social types". Such rough-and-ready prediction ruled out able-bodied men, as well as young, single women, and counted only the elderly, mothers and respectable people fallen on hard times among "the type which does not ask for assistance and therefore deserves it". Others still just rested their decisions on shaky conclusions: "She did not impress me favourably, but I could not tell why."

Greater certainty came from knowing that however skilful the liars, their bodies would reveal the truth. In the same decades that enthusiasts promoted lie detectors as a universal solution to crime, some of the COS's investigators were convinced they, too, could detect the physical signs of falsehood. In case notes that sometimes took on the character of detective stories, they showed their skill in the interpretation of gestures, expressions, dress and physical surroundings. There were always clues: too much make-up, nicotine stains or the faint smell of alcohol on the breath. Deceptions always left their traces: in bodies that were too strong and healthy, in houses with a pianola or a gramophone, in rooms that reeked of perfume or cigarette smoke. Asking for help demanded an almost inhuman control over your body and people attracted suspicion for their "vague, smirking manner", "furtive eyes", or "evasive and deceptive" faces. Others were denied help for "appearing simply too plausible" or because "her eyes flickered just a little".

In one case, help was refused because a daughter seen at the door was "too well-dressed" to support the applicant's story. One man was said to be "simulating simplicity" in order to cadge a meal, while another risked his claim because there was lipstick on a glass in his kitchen yet he said he wasn't married. It was also important to show "true feelings", and in the right way. A mother in Carlton, evicted from her home, had "a plausible manner and knows how to make her case appear needy", while a father from Fitzroy, about to be evicted, "returned and sat on the [COS] steps nursing his head in his knees. He gave one the impression of deliberately working on his emotions for effect".

 

IN LATE 1932, the COS's most indefaticable investigator, whom I'll call Miss K, came across an unemployed man whose wife and children had returned to England. He "impressed me most unfavourably", she wrote in her notes, "owing to a very unreliable way with him". His eyes were also "extremely evasive". When challenged over part of his story, "he merely smiled in his unreliable way and did not deny this". He had several dealings with the same investigator, the last in 1936, when he needed dentures. The applicant still had his "peculiar and always unsatisfactory attitude" and Miss K knew he was a liar, "for some vague reason that I can never define". He was denied assistance. So was a woman whose eldest child had died of meningitis in 1934; in debt from the funeral, she had approached the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for 15 shillings ($1.50) to pay the rent. "Extremely plausible and smiling" was the investigator's opening summary. "I had no faith in the very deliberate lame way that she walked in my presence. She impressed me as a very dangerous, cunning woman."

There were, of course, frauds and liars. There were pathetic attempts to garner a few shillings or even a few pounds without telling the whole truth. There were women and men who needed money for a drink and said they needed it for medicine. There were people who hid their foibles and their follies and then suffered the shame of their revelation. Yet in its own case summaries from the 1920s, fewer than 5 per cent of COS applicants were even thought to be potential "impostors". In the 1200 case files I have read, there are 15 in which the COS was the victim of some kind of deception. In every single case, fraud occurred because the very same science that examined poor people's bodies for signs of evasion encouraged investigators to trust more "superior types" whose bodies bore the marks of what one worker called "refined suffering". In other words, the truly deserving would visibly "feel their position" and show the evidence of genuine need in their faces and gestures. In 1924, for instance, "a superior type of man" was helped to take up a farming job; the COS was a little embarrassed when he immediately forged one of his employer's cheques and left for Sydney. Another "sensitive man", who so "felt his position" that he cried, was given £5. He disappeared and was also rumoured to be in Sydney (I think Melbourne people always assumed that Sydney was the obvious destination for cheats and liars).

The supposition that "superior types" could be trusted left the COS exposed to more than financial embarrassment. In 1932, a young man was referred to the COS by a smaller relief agency. He was visited by the relentless Miss K, who saw "photographs of all members of the family, and they seem to be of an exceptionally fine type". As "there is no doubt the case is a very genuine and pleasing one", the man received a daily pint of milk and a weekly ration of one dozen eggs. Returning two months later to request second-hand boots, he casually dropped into the conversation the fact that he was married and expressed surprise that the COS visitor had not asked about such an obvious matter during the initial investigation. Miss K was outraged; visiting again, she met his wife, with her "very good teeth" (always suspicious in "needy" people) and "very strange evasive eyes".

For the next seven years, COS investigators tracked this man through churches and relief agencies, to all of which he offered the reassurance that he was "known by the COS". Invariably, their warnings came too late. The exasperated Miss K would locate his most recent address, to find there a "cabinet wireless" or "well-clothed children", and the applicant, with his "very smiling, plausible way". Charged with an assault in the Myer Emporium on Bourke Street, he then approached the Myer family for charity. He did odd jobs for a city firm that was sent tickets for a charity ball. "The morning after the ball, [the organisers] phoned to ask who was the dreadful person whom they had sent to represent the firm. It finally transpired that [he] had taken the tickets, hired or borrowed an evening suit, and gone to the ball."

Clearly, investigation was inexact and unreliable, and the fact that fraud was only ever a problem among "superior types" seems not to have led to any changes in practice. Trained to doubt and mistrust people who were not like them, the COS workers struggled to find answers to questions that never became easier. How could those people be trusted? How could you tell if they were really "feeling their position" and hadn't simply rehearsed the script beforehand? Whatever the lessons of their own experiences, investigators were always expected to focus first upon the problem of fraud and "undeserving" paupers. In giving, they feared creating dependency. In trusting, they feared liars and cheats. In refusing, they feared damning those who really needed their help.

 

THERE ARE OTHER sides to this story, not least the tactics and beliefs of the COS's clients. Here, I want to concentrate on one of the most significant effects of this focus on dependency and falsehood: charity investigation always encouraged people to portray themselves as strong, capable and determined. They had to accept only the help they really needed and they were expected to "feel their position so keenly", as one worker asserted, "that they would rather not accept our help at all". In other words, to deserve help you had to acknowledge the shame of needing it. To remain deserving, you had to ensure that your dependence on others lasted only so long as the "real" need that justified it.

In a system in which everyone knew those were the rules, the effect was to make sure that most clients could tell only part of the truth about their poverty. It encouraged stories about endurance and undeserved suffering, while discouraging a more honest exchange about poverty's origins and effects in people's lives. It focused attention on "imposture", rather than the dependency that stemmed from frailty, confusion, weakness and resignation. Most of all, it hid the fact that at least some of the people in the COS waiting room were probably not capable of independence, at least not there and then. They needed help, and perhaps they needed someone to tell them what to do. They were ill and felt defeated. Poverty had rubbed away their certainties and dimmed their hopes. They lacked the strength to fight. Some were consumed by grievances and demons they couldn't overcome. Others, I think, just wanted to talk and have someone listen, perhaps to feel, for just a few minutes, that they mattered.

 

IN 1946, THE COS renamed itself the Citizens Welfar Service of Victoria (CWS). It hoped to emphasise family counselling and situations in which "material aid, if necessary at all, may only be a minor factor". But it wasn't so easy to shift away from the poor. There were groups such as deserted mothers or tenants "decanted" from condemned houses into temporary camps, who were still waiting for the rising tide. As caseloads mounted again in the 1940s and 1950s, the most frequent cases were homeless alcoholic men, or the "socially inadequate", some with severe physical ailments and others with illnesses of the mind. They had come to depend upon others. They'd been worn down and defeated. Some COS investigators understood all of this, especially as the tide of poverty ebbed in the 1940s. They became social workers, with smaller case loads and more opportunity to offer "skilled service". They attended to real problems of despair, confusion and incapacity with a gentleness rarely afforded clients between the wars. The case files of the COS and the CWS, whether in the 1920s or the 1950s, certainly reveal incapacitated people. They also show how a growing number of that agency's workers struggled to find ways of assisting those people without making sturdy independence the measure of their entitlement. It had been a hard lesson to learn.

There was another lesson, too. If the Second World War had created new kinds of social problems – hasty marriages and desertions, the inadequacy of child care for working women and a locally severe shortage of housing – wartime mobilisation and a relatively buoyant postwar economy washed away much of the unemployment and poverty of 1939. Few of the previously poor lingered to enjoy the pleasures of "mendicancy" when there were jobs and decent public benefits.

These were often people of whom COS investigators had despaired; "unemployables" and "chronic loafers", one worker called them, while another wrote of "socially and industrially maladjusted units" ruined by the "character-destroying doles of indiscriminate givers". Frequent visitors for assistance in the 1930s, they disappeared during the war. Investigators sometimes came upon them again during their visits to other clients in the 1940s and 1950s. They didn't need help any more, especially from a private charity. They had decent, secure work. The men had stopped tramping and were earning regular wages on the trams or in the Public Works Department. They'd moved into public housing. With more money, they no longer suffered so much from the ailments of insecurity.

The story of public and private welfare after the war belongs elsewhere. Suffice to say that some members of a generation who endured the Depression had learned a truth about poverty's origins in insecurity and had been moved to find remedies. Those remedies were public and entitlements to them were universal. They were based on commitments such as social security and full employment. They took seriously the fundamental importance of decent housing, affordable health care and better education. Of course, some campaigns were unsuccessful. Others, such as tackling the poverty of the aged, would await a new burst of reform in the 1960s and 1970s. But for these campaigns, the bodies of the poor had come to symbolise forms of suffering that could and should be prevented. For a time, the imperfections belonged not to them but to a society that stood by as they faltered and failed.

THE MISTAKES OF the past stemmed from a conviction that poverty's remedies lay in changing poor people, rather than changing the situations that produced and reproduced their poverty. It seems strange to have to say this again, to have to insist once more that poor people don't cause poverty. In the middle of the 1990s, when I spoke with about 300 people living and working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Brisbane's Inala, Melbourne's Broadmeadows and Sydney's Mount Druitt, a St Vincent de Paul volunteer put it best: "People are blaming the poor again and people don't know, they really don't know what's going on here. They've got no idea. How do you get people to see?" Local workers and residents alike spoke of wheels turning and bad times coming back. Older people insisted that the Depression was again at hand and with it the disdain for the poor they remembered. Experienced workers talked of a renewed determination by governments to make welfare providers into detective agencies, as part of a revitalised struggle against "dependency". And all this was before the arrival of mutual obligation or the enthusiastic war against welfare cheats that should forever shame its generals and strategists.

Some people then living in poverty told of being tested for the first symptoms of lazy welfare dependence. They talked about not appearing "too needy", and "making sure you look right, you know, cheerful". As one experienced community worker said, "Now people [again] have to confess everything." People knew that their bodies, as well as their stories, created suspicion. Young men joked about overly visible tattoos. A group of Mount Druitt single mothers talked about being humble. They spoke of bowing and scraping and mimicked the penitent pose they reserved for a local public-housing manager. "The deeper the gravel rash goes in, the better", they laughed; with him, "it's yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir".

These are local echoes of a larger battle against dependency, in which anxieties about the imperfect and evasive bodies of the poor remain strong. Several federal ministers, including Treasurer Peter Costello, have spoken about the problem of people aged in their 50s and 60s who are living on disability benefits rather than looking for paid work. In some versions of the argument, these people are trapped in the inefficiencies of the welfare system. In others, given the marginal benefits of the disability pension over the unemployment benefit, the implication is that passive welfare dependency is a rational yet depraved choice. When discussing 2002 proposals to encourage part-time work among disability support pensioners (whom he called people "with a bad back or something"), Costello assured them that "nobody who is incapable of work will be affected by this".

While the campaign has had its clumsy moments – not least when hundreds of blind people were sent letters they couldn't read – there is nothing wrong with encouraging a mix of work and benefits, especially if it is matched by increased funding for support services and training. Yet arguments about dependency on disability pensions, especially when they involved redundant men, always seem to rest upon an assumption that somehow, somewhere, a mistake had been made. The system has been overly kind. It has failed to remind injured claimants of their obligations or to investigate their claims with sufficient rigour. Perhaps these people are getting away with something. Perhaps they are manufacturing disability and using their bodies to defraud the hard-pressed taxpayer.

ONE POINT THE advocates of such reforms rarely make is that large numbers of men aren't working because there are no jobs for them. It is just as clear that many working-class men are once again suffering the ailments of insecure employment, joblessness and anxious lives. In Broadmeadows, Mount Druitt and Inala, social workers, doctors and nurses talked about depressive illnesses, suicides and numbing despair. Wives cried over husbands who thought they had failed their families and mothers wept over sons who had said they were going to die unemployed. In parts of western Sydney, a number of welfare workers told me that one of the fastest-growing services was agoraphobic support groups for jobless men. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, these men had no place outside. They had become trapped in their houses.

Another point the enthusiasts for reform sometimes ignore is that for these men, a "bad back or something" usually spells disaster. Unlike the professions – or federal politics – labouring, truck driving and factory work privilege the young. These jobs get harder and harder over time and they still injure people at an alarming rate. Most of the men to whom I spoke had bad backs but they also had bad eyes from the dust, bad ears from the noise or bad stomachs from the stress. Their bodies no longer worked as well as they once did. They had lost penalty payments, which meant doing more overtime or doing two jobs, and they were exhausted. They had no jobs and spent their days worrying about the future. They couldn't do the kinds of jobs they used to do, or those jobs have vanished. Their bodies had been apprenticed to a firm and prepared for a skill, not trained for a flexible, mobile labour force. They didn't and don't have the polish, the smooth talk and young bodies demanded by new jobs in sales and services. The problem, once again, is not what is wrong with redundant men, it is what has gone wrong with a society in which skilled, active and talented people can become so easily disposable.

It is likely to get worse. Cost-shifting governments have suspended or seriously weakened long-term and preventative programs, such as dental care. Universal entitlements are diminishing everywhere, and with them the commitment to anything but a minimum standard for people who can't afford to pay. While the aged have a political presence sufficient to protect them from some of the slurs and suspicions that infect the public-welfare system, the same cannot be said for the unemployed, single parents and invalids.

Like scientific charity, distrusting and punitive welfare attacks largely invented and insignificant problems. It aims to terrorise the vast honest majority by its assaults upon a pathetic and often simply desperate minority. It pretends that a request for assistance – from anybody but "superior types" – usually masks a desire to get something for nothing. It calms the fears and satisfies the prejudices of people who don't know poverty, and it will be just as ineffective in securing the welfare of those who do. Nor will it actually tackle dependencies and weaknesses. It is difficult to think of something less likely to help the despondent and the damaged than the public-welfare system we seem to be developing: one that is terrified of taking risks, anxious about trusting its own workers, let alone its clients, and dedicated first and foremost to showing its audience just how tough it can be.

Ways of talking about poor people's bodies are an important measure of the ebb and flow of compassion and trust. In the 1920s and 1930s, some of the COS investigators learned that poor people more often than not told the truth about the perils of insecurity. In the decades thereafter, good people struggled to imagine and then build a world in which those insecurities and the damage they did were no longer accepted as inevitable or intractable. Of course, some were convinced then, and some remained convinced now, that poverty's origins and solutions lay mostly in the imperfections of the poor. In that sense, the lessons of this past proved too forgettable. They bear repeating, especially when someone talks about the ailments of injustice as if they belong to another country or another time.

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