Copyright Patricia M. Short, 1996. One copy of this paper can be made for the purpose of personal, non-commercial use, subject to proper attribution to the author.

No-one to turn to: estrangement and need in kinship economies

Patricia M. Short,
Department of Anthropology and Sociology,
The University of Queensland.


In this paper I argue that exchanges and transfers of money, and goods and services within `kinship economies' may be crucial for the maintenance of a decent standard of living. Elsewhere I have argued that relatively dense and resourceful networks of kin are fundamental conditions of consumption in a major segment of the informal, interhousehold economy. Here, I explore the circumstances and experiences of a small group of clients of three emergency relief centres in the Ipswich- Moreton Shire in south-east Queensland, and note the significance for them of estrangement from kin and the absence of kin with resources to `share'. The suggestion is made that as state benefits are viewed as income substitution, that is, substitution of resources derived from employment or active participation in the labour market, `emergency relief' may be viewed as substitution for kinship exchange or transfer, that is, substitution of resources usually derived from active participation in kinship economies. More broadly, some comments are made about the place of families in the total economy.

This paper reports on an in-depth interview study in the Ipswich-Moreton region which is part of a second stage of a research project aimed at exploring in detail the differences in patterns of householding among groups of people who differ with respect to their access to and control over resources for living.

`Householding' is used here to refer to all those social processes and aspects of social organisation which occur at the level of the household which are directed at providing the goods and services necessary for the survival and well-being of household members. Householding then includes the processes and organisation of income earning (including housework), income pooling and the allocation of income, where `income' may be money or goods or services derived from any sphere of economic activity. Therefore, any study of householding necessarily involves consideration of employment and access to market goods and services, state income support and other state benefits, and community and interhousehold exchanges and transfers. In this project, family or kin relations are viewed as a form of social/ economic infrastructure with qualities that distinguish it from the market, the state and other interhousehold and community structures for exchange and transfer. The central focus in this paper is upon economic life at the level of lived experience in households and families.

The Ipswich-Moreton study

The Ipswich-Moreton region was chosen as an area for study because it is one of a number of local government areas in Queensland which are quite heterogeneous overall in their socio-economic composition. The heterogeneity of the area was of interest because, in a later stage of the study, it is planned to conduct interviews with people in other positions of access (for example, `secure' and `privileged positions') and to further investigate the social organisation of redistributive processes at both formal and informal levels.

Emergency relief centre clients were selected for in-depth study at this stage because they were so clearly a group of people who were in a situation of deprivation. Their presentation at an emergency relief centre was taken as an unambiguous indicator that they had exhausted their available resources and were still in need.

Over a period of nearly a year (from August, 1995 to June 1996), twenty-six interviews, lasting between three-quarters of an hour and 2 hours in length, were recorded with clients in three emergency relief centres in different parts of the region. The time period for the study was lengthy because there were some practical difficulties in arranging mutually convenient times for interviews, and more significantly, there were several periods when all three centres where the study was conducted were progressively closed, awaiting renewals of funding.

Interviews were based upon a model articulated by Dervin (1992) (also Shields and Dervin, 1992). Participants were asked to describe their circumstances, to tell something about the people in their household and to tell what had happened that had made things so difficult for them at the time they approached the emergency relief centre. As they described their experiences and identified critical moments, they were asked `What happened then?' `What did you do next?' `Who helped you then?' `Was there anything that made things more difficult?' These relatively open questions are designed to explore the ways in which people actively make sense of their social circumstances and they allow participants to voice their own explanations for how they have moved from one situation to another over time. Later in the interviews, if the topics had not been covered, participants were asked about their main source of income, and about family, friends and neighbours as possible sources of help for these were topics of central interest in the context of the wider comparative inquiry into householding and inequality. Apart from these questions, the interviews were unstructured and conversational.

This report is based upon the first stages of descriptive or open coding of interview tapes. It has been written just at the stage when categories or themes for organising and understanding the patterns of participants' experiences are emerging from analysis, and the connections and disjunctions between their accounts, grounded in personal experience, and the analytical models which have been developed from other studies, are becoming apparent. A central purpose of this paper is to give voice to the participants' accounts of their situations. Their stories are juxtaposed with analytical models of householding arising from a growing body of literature on `householding' and the place of the household in `the total economy'.

Background considerations

Some aspects of this literature on households are worth noting since they form a background to the argument presented in this paper. Firstly, a central theme in the householding literature is that informal associative networks (friendship, neighbourhood and other `community' networks), families and households themselves are significant sites of economic activity, that is - production, exchange and transfer of goods and services (Mingione, 1991; Morris, 1990; Wallerstein and Smith, 1992a). At the same time, there is widespread agreement that of all income producing activities, employment is the principal one even in post-industrial economies, and state income support along with other state transfers is a crucial means of protection from the effects of unemployment and employment marginalisation (Kreckel, 1989; Mingione, 1991; Pixley, 1993).

Secondly, whilst in theories of householding `the household' is conceptualised as a site where different opportunities for producing income are strategically managed, and the boundaries of income pooling units (households) are adjusted (Mingione, 1991; Wallerstein and Smith, 1992), there is also some recognition that different spheres of consumption - the market, state, community/ interhousehold and household, are characterised by different principles of access and therefore different social relations of consumption. Warde (1990) has delineated the distinguishing characteristics of access relations in different spheres and Figure 1 below presents a modified version of his schema.

Economic SpherePrinciple of Access

The market

Participation through market exchange

The state

Citizenship/ residential entitlement

Interhousehold/ communal economy


Interhousehold/ kinship economy

Kinship obligation


Familial/ domestic obligation

Figure 1: Principles of Access

The modifications to Warde's schema, which does not distinguish the interhousehold/ kinship sphere from other interhousehold exchanges or transfers, are derived from Short (1996) where it is argued that kinship exchanges and transfers are different from other interhousehold transfers in that they are primarily based upon principles of kinship obligation rather than `reciprocal exchange'. Finch (1989) presents a similar view of kinship support, highlighting the enduring nature of kin relationships and drawing upon Sahlins (1965) to describe the `generalised' nature of reciprocity in many kin transfers. She suggests a model of kinship support as support which is
embedded within relationships which...tend to last a very long which some support may be reciprocated over the short-term, ...or may create an expectation that the giver will eventually get something back in some other time and place as yet unspecified, and possibly from a third party (Finch, 1989: 165).

Studies such as D'Abbs (1991), de Vaus (1994), and Short (1996), present data which are entirely consistent with such a model of kinship support. These and other studies also point to the significance of the proximity of kin, the density of local kin ties, the `willingness' of kin to help (that is, their acceptance of kinship obligations) and the availability of resources within kin networks as factors shaping patterns of access to kin resources. These social relations and material conditions may be regarded as the means of consumption in the kinship sphere of the economy.

If particular social relations and material conditions are necessary for participation in each sphere of the economy then only when the necessary social and/ or material conditions are present will it be possible for people to substitute one source of income for another in the process of strategic management of income at the household level. When householders possess skills or abilities which are valued in the labour market, they will be in a position to obtain income from employment; when they are engaged in relatively dense interhousehold networks of association and they have the skills (often derived from participation in employment) and other resources to produce goods and services for exchange, they will be able to participate in informal exchange; when households have the necessary materials, skills, time and labour power, they will be in a position to produce goods and services in their households and when they are part of sufficiently resourced networks of kin who accept the principles of kinship obligation they will be able to draw upon kinship support.

To the extent that householders are disengaged from the social relations of consumption in any sphere, their access to resources or income from that sphere will be limited and their vulnerability to deprivation increases. In these terms, we might expect that the most vulnerable, and those experiencing deprivation, will be disengaged from appropriate relations of consumption in most spheres. We turn now to consider the circumstances of a clearly vulnerable group - the emergency relief clients who participated in this study.

Income from the market

With respect to employment (the most common form of market-based income producing activity), there were a variety of ways in which participants had experienced marginalisation and exclusion. Some were clearly victims of structural changes in the labour market. S.C., who lives with her husband and seven children aged between 4 years and 12 years, described her husband's employment position:

'My husband was recently working. At his job, he's only started that this year, he's only on casual and apparently over the Christmas period, six weeks, they put all their casuals off and maybe, they get back on after the Christmas period's over. That's the sort of reason I came in today. We're finding things a bit hard.' [S.C., 20.12.95]

Others experienced job loss as a result of illness or injury. Y.J. spoke of her husband, N.J. who is in his late 40s, and recognised a combination of factors excluding him from employment. N.J. had not had paid work for some eighteen months and their main source of income was an unemployment benefit. Their difficulties had reached unmanageable proportions when their rented home had been vandalised and looted whilst they were absent for a few weeks. They were having great difficulty finding affordable accommodation.

'...there was no work around, then plus with his back. ...Work did run out, but um it's the strain. Because of his age bracket they can knock him back...If you're between fourteen and sixteen you're a junior, if you're sixteen to eighteen you can get a pass, if you're over eighteen they put you in another class and over the age of twenty-five you're ancient. That's how they class it these days, you know. The younger ones get it and the older ones don't. ...N. is a qualified [tradesperson]. ...He was working by himself.' [Y.J., 21.7.95]

There were also some participants who were excluded by permanent disability and who were unlikely ever to be employed other than in limited part-time or casual jobs. G.H., a single man in his mid-forties who lives in a single men's guesthouse, said,

'Well, [I've been on an invalid pension] for about twenty years. [I haven't worked because] I can't really write and everything, and I'm a bit slow...[Before that] I was on a training farm. ...I was doing nothing so I decided to get out [and live at the guesthouse]. ...The jobs I do [at the guesthouse], I get paid for that...I just do odd jobs. ...I got the tea-room job, doing the tea-room in the morning. I get about $15 a week doing that, that's $30 a fortnight. That helps a lot.' [G.H., 6.12.95]

For women as well as men, illness (including stress related health problems) or injury were aspects of employment marginalisation. Though some had not experienced job loss, `disability' was a very real constraint upon their labour market participation. B.K. explained how and why she came to be receiving an invalid pension and saw no prospect for employment in the future.

'I'm forty eight. ...I've got arthritis. Twenty-five years ago I started to get it. I've been on the invalid pension for two, going on three years...[and before that] single parent's benefit. ...[W]ith arthritis I won't get any better, and if I have a hip replacement, and I can't have that until I'm fifty because I'm too young, and then I've got to go on a waiting list, so I've got about another four or five years [wait]. ...I've got it everywhere...I can't sit down all day and I can't stand up all day' [B.K., 15.8.95]

D.S. was under considerable strain having separated recently from her partner who was suffering from a mental health problem.

'[I've been a housewife] for twenty years, I've done sort of casual work...just in a factory. ...One part there I worked for four months but normally yeah short periods, six weeks. I've done training programs and I've done some senior [subjects]. ...At the moment I'm too busy trying to sort my life out and all this other drama to even contemplate it.' [D.S., 15.12.95]

Women had experienced employment marginalisaton also through separation from wage partners. Some separations were pathways out of violent homes; some occurred when partners were imprisoned or had deserted their families. For these women who had been perhaps vicariously (even precariously) linked to the labour market, the effects of exclusion nonetheless were experienced firsthand.

E.A. who had recently left her conjugal home for what she described as a trial separation, to escape and hopefully deal with the problem of her husband's verbal and emotional abuse, described the change in her circumstances.

'I'm only on social security...Sole Parent Benefit, [for the last] five weeks. [Before that] my husband's wages. ...We just built a house...about a year [ago], and [before that] Housing Commission. We were living in a bad area, very bad, and we saved up really hard. I was working, he was working we saved really hard to buy our own place.' [E.A., 9.8.95]

These anecdotes demonstrate not only the forms of `employment exclusion' experienced by participants but also the shifting of their dependence from wage income to state income support. Their accounts of their experiences as claimants and dependents in the state sphere, reported below, clearly challenge any notion of householding as a more or less straightforward balancing of alternative sources of income.

State benefits

Not all emergency relief centre clients are jobless but it is significant that most are. All the study participants were receiving state income support at the time of our conversations. Their entitlements ranged from sole parenthood and unemployment to disability, and one was in receipt of Austudy. Beyond their dependence on the state for minimal income support, most were also tenants of the State Housing Authority and a very common difficulty reported by participants was that of meeting the cost of the services of public utilities. Participants' experiences as claimants, clients and customers of the state were alike characterised by tension.

They told stories expressing feelings of `injustice', frustration over determination of entitlements and despair in their struggle to live on inadequate incomes. Not having enough money to `pay the bills' (that is, regular bills such as electricity, gas, petrol, children's school expenses) was a cry that reverberated through every interview.

Several gave accounts of difficulties in dealing with state agencies and expressed feelings of injustice about their treatment and the difficulty of establishing their entitlement at times when they were experiencing other critical transitions such as family separation, adjustment to injury, forced residential relocation or combinations of these. A.J., a mother of four young children, two living with her, whose partner had been recently imprisoned, described her circumstances with a sense of frustration.

'At the moment Social Security, I don't know, they keep bringing my payments up and down like a yo-yo and it's only because the lady from here came with us yesterday that it was seemingly going to be all right.' [A.J., 21.7.95]

E.A. was one of several who related difficulties relating to previous unresolved situations.

'...trying to find bond money. Now I know that the Government Housing Commission does [lend it] but I wasn't aware until recently that I had a debt with the Housing Commission. They're charging an enormous amount of money for clean-up and I've been to discuss this and I thought I was being set up. And I left that house spotless. I bleached the walls down. ...I really cleaned that place up ... and they charged about $220 clean-up. ...Some people have been charged $300 and I think that's really bad. ...They're affecting poor people and they're stinging them again. It's like, when they're down, kick 'em again.' [E.A., 9.8.95]

Others, who were `established' recipients, gave accounts of straightforward and minimal dealings with state agencies. Still, they expressed clear views about the inadequacy of payments and their feelings of injustice about this. Y.J. outlined the difficulties experienced by her teenage son who had been seriously injured in an accident. As stated above, she and her husband (N.J) were also dependent upon unemployment benefits as their main source of income.

'...They won't give [a disability pension] to him because they said they can re-train him to do a course within two years. ...The doctor said he can't do anything for two years anyway, so he should be entitled. Like he's getting $60 a week. ...They won't give him Newstart, they put him on Sickness Benefits. He was getting $220 before, now he's on Sickness Benefits and he only gets $120 a fortnight. ...When he was in hospital and running backwards and forwards to the hospital and that it wasn't even covering the expenses of transport and tablets and everything.' [Y.J., 21.7.95]

S.D., a sole parent and houseworker, has two dependent children. He hopes to re-enter the workforce via TAFE training and self-employment. He expressed his feelings of injustice.

'I hate being on the pension. They don't give you enough to live on...with my daughter being a diabetic...with the amount of money the government gives us, they must think we're a miracle worker, thinking...,`That's enough for them'. Like the kids, they're growing all the time and their education's expanding all the time. ...While they're going that way and that way, our money just going shrinking and shrinking; it's not going anywhere. ...Can you tell me the last time the pensioner had a pay rise? And yet the cost of living's always going up, but nobody's gave the poor old pensioner a pay rise. They've had about three or four, the government mob.' [S.D., 15.12.95]

These accounts provide a story of a group of people who are marginalised workers excluded from employment, and marginalised citizens whose experience of `entitlement to state benefits' is characterised by struggle and constraint.

Informal support

When faced with exclusion from employment or limited employment income, can these `households' re-organise around state support and engage in other forms of income producing activities, such as domestic labour and informal exchange or kinship transfer? (Mingione, 1991 Wallerstein and Smith, 1992a, 1992b).

Few of the emergency relief centre clients reported having the social ties necessary for reciprocal exchange much less the resources (materials, tools or time) to produce goods and services for exchange. Several explicitly recognised that they, their neighbours and their friends were alike in not having the means to participate in informal exchanges, except perhaps in very limited ways, and many had been made wary of forming ties with neighbours or depending upon friends.

'No, I don't choose to [have friends]...from the experiences I've had. ...I don't really like getting in with your neighbours. I like to sort of go, I'll say `Hello!' I just mind my business. ...[Where I've lived before] there was an elderly chap next door, he was quite nice - but other than that, no.' [D.S., 15.12.95]

I left my bank book with this lady...and eh I went overseas. And there I receive a letter from her - `My pension is stopped'...and I was there for three months but she lied to me because she didn't send me my money and I couldn't even buy the visa. So, she [said] `What I have, I'll send you'. ...I asked her on my return to give me my bank book. She wouldn't. I asked her to give the receipts, you know, how much money she claimed she had sent to me. She didn't do that [either]. ...And now I have to go to Legal Aid, the police. ...I lost $6000. [F.M., 6.12.95]

Similarly, they have few resources for household production and housework is very much organised around limiting consumption.

'Well, the lights get turned on only when they need to be turned on and there's no excess. Things that are in the power points get taken out at night so there is no excess there. If the girls are going to bed I leave a lamp on and then when they're asleep, turn it off. Just as much as we can ...We used to go out for drives at the weekend and now we don't, try and save money on petrol. The girls don't get as much as they used and clothes, treats, ice-creams. A friend of mine has a daughter...she gives [my daughter] clothes that don't fit her [daughter] any more and I go out and do the op-shops ...[I] can manage if I don't do it too often.' [S. L., 13.12.95]

I've had to go without food to give to [my son] and get the nappies and some tins of food and formula for her. I've just lived on bread and butter and Vegemite ...or I've just bought some...noodles to feed him cause I haven't got nothing to give him because he's a big eater. And because he won't eat bread and he's a really fussy, fussy fussy eater. ...I can't give him lunch for school so I have to have money so I can give him for lunch. ...To keep him happy, like I smoke, but I'll go without smokes or I'll go without dinner or anything just so I'll have enough money to give him for lunch food, enough money to buy him food and enough money to get her formula and nappies. ...Every week, I have a couple of days of the week that I go without, until I get paid. [A.J., 21.7.95]

'...if we don't want to eat [much] we'll have a salad sandwich that night and the next night we'll have a meal. And I go to Woolworths or Coles and get little portions of meat. Whoever says you can't survive on social security is wrong. You can. ...I have [gone without], the children haven't. I've got four children.' [D.S., 15.12.95]

Thus, in these households, members have few ties and few or no resources for exchange in informal `reciprocal' networks and they have few or no resources to `expand' their domestic production.

Excluded or constrained in their access to these sources of income and marginalised in the formal economy, it might be expected that these people would turn to kin. The resources they needed and the forms of assistance they required would appear to be the kind that might be transferred within the kinship sphere. They approached the emergency relief centres for small amounts of money to pay an urgent bill or to meet grocery requirements when money had had to be used to pay for a child's school excursion, to buy a birthday or Christmas gift. They needed household items to set up house; no-interest or low-interest loans (with flexible terms of repayment) for white goods or car repairs or replacement and sometimes, emergency accommodation - a place to stay for a while. Furthermore, they needed assistance that was not based on exchange but upon flexible, informally regulated conditions of transfer, distributed at discretion when needed.

However, one of the most striking aspects of the experience of the emergency relief clients was their estrangement from kin. Not only were they excluded from the core area of employment, without the necessary resources for increasing household production and unable to engage in informal reciprocal exchanges, but their kin relations were overwhelmingly characterised by conflict, estrangement or mutual impoverishment. This is where their experience contrasts most sharply with the assumptions of theoretical models of `householding' and `survival' and, indeed, those underlying the popular rhetoric of `family support'.

'My parents don't have nothing to do with me. They're in N.S.W. ...Because ...I have two older children and see I have to fight for them um see because when I met M. I divorced my previous husband because we were abused ...M. helped me .. and then one thing led to another. ...My parents didn't like the idea with me. 'Cause I was working to get somewhere so my children could have a home ...I thought I'd leave my children with my parents so they could have a stable home and a stable school...They thought I was living beyond the law [with M.]. So then when I went to go and get my kids, my parents kicked up a stink'. [A.J., 21.7.95]

'I can't get my mother to help me cause she's too flat out doing things herself ...[Brothers and sisters?] - nup can't help me. They always picked on me. They don't like me, I don't like them.' [M.G., 10.10.95]

G.S. told how she had recently received some financial help from her brother when she needed money for surgery, but he was the only relative she could call on for any form of support.

'I lost me Mum and everything I owned in a house fire down in S. ten, eleven years relatives in Queensland, two brothers in N.S.W. ...One I keep in touch with. ..He comes up here on holidays and that.' [G.S., 19.6.96]

E.D. and her husband of more than seven years had recently lost a `more than full-time' share job. Under the strain, her husband had deserted his family, leaving E.D. to care for three children. She was also suffering from a chronic and potentially life-threatening illness.

'I lost my mother five years ago; lost my father three years ago. ...I've got a brother in Canada. ...I've got my auntie in Melbourne...she's really nice...she's probably the most special person in the world to me, but I mean, she's moved to Melbourne...and her son, he lives in Shepparton, she's very close to him. They're probably the closest part of my family but they're so far away. ...[My husband] took me round to meet [his mother] a couple of times and she's really nice. I don't know any of his sisters' [E.D., 6.12.95]

S.L. is a young single unemployed person. She said of her family:

'I have my family here in Brisbane but we don't get on. ...[Haven't had any contact with them]...for ten years. ...My parents ... two sisters and one brother. ...He contacts me when he wants something.' [S.L., 13.12.95]

Not all participants were without close kin ties. E.A. has had a multitude of family problems to deal with throughout her life and felt, for a number of reasons, she was simply unable to ask for any more assistance from kin.

'Yeah I got relatives, I got my Nan and my uncle...they're just stressed out cause me and E. have split up. ...[They] live not far away. My brother's ...due to come back soon. ...He'll be living with me...until he finds something else. ...My Nan's `Scrooge'. ...My Nan's very hard with money. ..It's like `Wait till I go, and then you can have it. Until then, you get on with your own life'. ...If I asked [my uncle] he'd give it to me. ..It's just that he's been so good to me in the past that I don't impose ' [E.A. 9.8.95]

B.M., who had approached the centre for the first time, described a dense network of kin relations involving frequent exchanges of help, including skilled work, amongst her household and those of her brothers and sisters, but her mother was the only person from whom she could borrow money, and she was unable to help B.M. because of her own financial circumstances.

'Like we usually always struggle around this time of the year but Mum usually gives us a helping hand but she's not financial, not financially well off at the moment, she's had a few debts that she's had to incur, she just couldn't help us out at this stage.' [B.M., 15.12.95]

In these households, the fundamental conditions for consumption in kinship economies do not appear to exist. Participants either had no or too few functional kin ties, kinship obligation to respond to need was not accepted as a principle of access or was normatively defined in such a way to exclude participants from access, and/or the resources for transfer were simply not available. So they turned to the only other source from which they could get help on the basis of need and with no immediate or direct obligation to exchange or reciprocate - emergency relief in the community welfare sector.


In this paper it has been argued that since access to income in the different spheres of consumption is based upon different sets of social relations and possession or control over appropriate resources for exchange or transfer, exclusion from one or another sphere cannot necessarily be compensated by increased involvement in another. This view is borne out in the experiences of these emergency relief clients who are evidently disengaged or estranged not only from employment as a social relation of consumption but also from informal reciprocal exchange relations and kinship relations.

It is only via their relationship with the state as dependent citizens that they have access to income. In this relationship their income is determined by the state in terms of entitlements essentially based upon recognition only of their lack of access to market-based income - the absence of a wage earner in the family-household. It is a highly formalised, contractual relationship between compliant citizen and the state, and provides little leeway for negotiating special needs and certainly not a level of income sufficient for accumulating reserves for emergencies. In critical situations, they have no-one to turn to.

Emergency relief distributed within the community welfare sector is their only source of additional income. Since government funds are provided (though sometimes erratically) for emergency relief, this may be seen as `topping up' inadequate state support. This study suggests that emergency relief from community welfare organisations may play a crucial role in substituting also for the special form and types of income usually obtained from kin. Such a conclusion points to the importance of resourcing the community welfare sector in ways that allow the maintenance and development of `kin-like' relations - enduring, flexible, non-exchange based, informally regulated social and economic arrangements to assist in providing for some of the most basic needs. Such arrangments may be crucial for the maintenance of a decent standard of living. Their significance is apparent in A.J.'s words:

'They're still helping me in spite that I'm still behind in the rent as well as I've got this house [through them] now. So that's what I mean. They're my only support system at the moment. ...As you know, I'm moving. I'm still going to keep in touch. They're still going to come out to see me to make sure everything's alright. They're my only support. If I fall down, I've got no-one to pick me up. I've got no family. I don't know anyone. ... I know a few people the street. I might go over for coffee and that, but you can't say too much. ...I can't say much about my partner, you know, most of the time I have to make up a story. ... So other than that, I haven't got anybody else for support who can know my situation that is truthfully without having to judge me, or judge [my partner], or judge my kids for it.' [A.J., 21.7.95.]


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