Is there such a thing as the 'privileged poor'?

Hannah Horvath from HBO's <i>Girls</i> ... the new generation of 'privileged poor' who "still has their rent, food and ...

Hannah Horvath from HBO's Girls ... the new generation of 'privileged poor' who "still has their rent, food and phone bills paid by mum and dad".

Have you ever sheepishly backed out of a social engagement because you're “too poor”? Taken to Twitter to vent about how broke your Master's degree/recent overseas trip/great-for-party-conversation-but-not-exactly-financially-lucrative career has left you? Complained to friends over red wine and camembert about how difficult it is to pay for private school, a mortgage and a cricket club membership, and still take your annual holiday?

Congratulations. You may be a member of Australia's privileged poor, the growing portion of the middle (and upper-middle, and even occasionally upper) class who believe they are doing it tough despite being socially, economically and educationally privileged in every way.

The privileged poor can take a number of guises. They might be a student who subsists on Centrelink payments and unpaid internships, but still has their rent, food and phone bills paid by mum and dad, Lena Dunham-style on Girls. They might be a twentysomething graduate who earns less than their lawyer and banker friends, but who still has enough cash on hand to eat out, keep abreast of the latest technology, and zip home in a taxi when the train is tardy. They might be a small-business owner taking in $120,000 a year, but who feels like they don't have much left over to play with once the bills have been paid.

What they all have in common is that they are not actually “poor” – at least, not in the conventional sense of the word. In fact, by most people's standards, they're pretty well off. They just don't feel like they are.


As Australian salaries and standards of living have soared, complaining about money (or our lack thereof) has become a national sport – and not just one that is confined to inner-city hipsters and other caricatures of upper middle-class privilege. Federal Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who represents the (traditionally working class) coal miners of the Hunter Valley, recently declared that “in Sydney's west you can be on a quarter of a million dollars family income a year and you're still struggling.”

One reason for our collective discontent is the skyrocketing cost of living in Australian cities. Sydney and Melbourne are now ranked the third and fifth-most expensive cities in the world, with Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide coming in at 11th, 13th and 14th respectively. Ten years ago, not a single Australian city placed in the top 50. The 2013 Demographia Housing Affordability Survey found that Australian house prices were among the least affordable in the developed world, with prices in Sydney 8.3 times the median annual income, and even regional markets such as the Sunshine Coast, Tamworth and Bendigo rated as “extremely unaffordable.”

So Fitzgibbon's coal miner constituents who are earning “100, 120, 130, 140 thousand dollars a year” probably aren't literally rolling in cash, Scrooge McDuck style. But are they “struggling”?

Part of the problem lies in our changing definition of what it means to be struggling – and equally, of what it means to be economically “comfortable” or middle-class. In our grandparents' generation, being comfortable meant knowing you would have enough money to eat and pay your bills, and usually enough to save and do some fun things on the side. Now, it seems to mean having enough money to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and never saying no to anything… and still having enough left over to put together a nest egg. Being comfortable, if you will, has become the personal finance equivalent of “having it all.”

The rise of the privileged poor isn't just a function of greed and misplaced self-pity. It is also a product of social expectation. Dishing out $60 for a dinner with friends, $200 for a buck's weekend away, $50 for a baby shower, and $25 for a Kickstarter campaign isn't just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses – it's a matter of not offending them.

The result is a false dichotomy: either you are “poor” and poised on the edge of bankruptcy, or you are “comfortable” and you never have to think about money at all. But being middle-class doesn't mean never needing to make a choice about what you spend your money on. It means having the wiggle room to choose in the first place.

There are people in Australia who are genuinely struggling. But they are not the families earning $200,000 a year, or the young singles on $50,000. A 2012 report by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) found that more than 2 million Australians were living in poverty. Their challenges aren't choosing between paying off their mortgage or paying for private school, but choosing between turning on the heating during winter and having enough to eat. Their sacrifices aren't forgoing an overseas holiday to cover the cost of childcare, but not going to the movies for a decade.

“It's $12 – I just can't,” writes one woman in the ACOSS report.

Which brings us to the other side effect of our collective crying poor: it makes it easier to look past the struggles of those who are genuinely struggling. When you're declaring social bankruptcy over drinking cleanskin wine instead of $17 cocktails, catching the night bus home instead of a taxi, or having to skip out on your friend's destination wedding – indeed, when this becomes your vision of what “poverty” looks like – there is a little less room in your heart for those for whom poverty means having no choice at all.