On Money by Rick Morton

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

An interesting take, by journalist Rick Morton, on what happens when you grow up WITHOUT money. From his very personal experiences, Rick explains how life treats the poor and the not-so-poor in our society. It’s probably among only a handful of books on finance written from the lack-of-money perspective and it’s definitely not a how-to-get-richer book.

Morton looks at how poverty shapes your worldview, the stresses of penury and some of the flow-on effects of that and then the treatment of rich and poor in our society. An effective way of doing this is by telling us of his mum Deb’s experiences.  It certainly makes you appreciate the tremendous effort she put in to raise three children on her own in penurious circumstances and the draining impact it’s had on her wellbeing.

Morton tells us that he opened a bank account in Boonah, Queensland as a Year 9 student in 2001 (p 57). He adds that for many, many years this account would struggle to get to zero, partly because his family was “thrust into poverty by sudden and horrific changes in circumstances” (p 92). He adds that the other main way into poverty is to be born into it.

Morton has a very interesting take on Einstein’s theory of relativity when he argues that money is like gravity, in that it can slow time if you have enough of it. He adds that we should think of money as a force that acts on us and it can and does distort time and space. If we have enough money, we can allow ourselves to breathe. If the basics like shelter and food are not covered, then it’s a constant struggle to survive. Morton also thinks that there’s a diminishing value to money once these basics are taken care of.

When it comes to the stresses of penury, Morton sums it up with his mum’s oft repeated question, “How much is it?” (p 77). Always having to weigh up whether you can afford essentials takes its toll and the realisation for the children of the poor that, “money doesn’t hang around” (p 43). Ironically, he points out that the poor pay more per item for many things because they can’t afford to buy in bulk. Morton came to believe there was no point saving for a raining day because it was torrential all the time. So as a young adult he spent all his wages and admits that he’s hopeless with finances.

One of the strengths of the writing is Morton’s analysis of the disproportionate treatment of the rich and poor in society. He starts with tax audits in the USA (presumably similar to Australia’s) and their tendency to look more closely at the returns of the poorer citizens. They are usually simpler to check than the complex tax arrangements of the wealthy. The rich seem to get more favourable conditions when facing legal charges, Morton argues, using Jeffrey Epstein as his case in point. It would have been more persuasive to use an Australian example here.

He was very unimpressed by PM Scott Morrison’s “if you have a go, you’ll get a go” slogan, because it seemed to imply that the poor just needed to try harder. He thought it would appeal to people who’ve never known deep financial struggle, which is most of us.

Also coming under his critical gaze was the Robo-debt fiasco. Morton argues that with a background of a widening wealth gap in Australia, the government’s “already leaden approach to welfare policy becomes more obscene” (p 73). The Coalition will pay back some three-quarters of a billion dollars to 370 000 people, and this may be an underestimation of the actual numbers, he says.

Morton turns his gaze on the gospel of prosperity and the idea that having money is an intrinsic measure of worth. Some go further and assert it’s a gauge of moral character. Then there’s those churches that offer up: God has made you rich because he loves you. He speculates that if some of these leaders were playing Monopoly and started losing then they’d talk a lot more about luck playing a part.

Morton is also unimpressed by the occasional rags-to-riches story we hear about. He thinks the hard work and self-restraint tale of one person (on the altar of individual effort) doesn’t tell us much about the lives of numerous others.

From three disparate sources, Morton fleshes out the plight of the poor. Firstly, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables and that for his crimes of petty stealing he was hounded by the state to his eventual death. Spoiler alert: Morton doesn’t much like the rich (‘weird little people’ p 78). Then in Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore” (p 21) we’re told that the 18th century English upper classes feared a revolution and didn’t look at the conditions that lead to crime. The result was harsh laws, overcrowded prisons and, eventually, transportation to Australia. But do 200-year-old social structures still apply today? How much have we changed?

Finally, the sad example of a Jamaican slum, described by Marlon James as a place where, “people (are) so poor that they can’t even afford shame” (p 67).

I would definitely recommend this little gem of a read so that you begin to get a better insight into our fellow Australians who grow up poor.

Rick Morton, who is in his early thirties, grew up in country Queensland. He won the Kennedy Award for Young Journalist of the Year in 2013 and Outstanding Columnist in 2017. He was the social affairs reporter at The Australian newspaper and is now the Senior Reporter for The Saturday Paper. He is the author of One Hundred Years of Dirt (MUP, 2018) which was short-listed for several awards.

On Money

(2020)

by Rick Morton

Hachette Australia

ISBN:978 0 7336 4576 1

$16.99   110 pp

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