Poverty, like its cousin privilege, has always been hard to pinpoint and even harder to define. If you live in Australia in 2017, are you impoverished if you’re an art student who scrapes by on Newstart Payments but has enough change to buy a round at the bar? What about if you’re a single mother who lives with her children in public housing and works extra shifts as a waitress to pay the gas bill? Or a former banker who threw in a day job to start a business but won’t see any income for 12 months?
In October 2016, a report by the Australian Council for Social Services (ACOSS) found that poverty in Australia is increasing with 2.9 million people or 13.3 percent of the population living below the poverty line — $426.30 a week for a single adult and $895.22 for a couple with children. The report also found that Australia has failed to reduce its overall levels of poverty in the last decade — despite 25 years of unbroken economic growth. In fact, a March 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, even as the economy boomed.
The report also found that Australia has failed to reduce its overall levels of poverty in the last decade — despite 25 years of unbroken economic growth.
Raewyn Connell is an acclaimed sociologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney. She believes that one of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to curbing poverty in Australia is understanding that being poor doesn’t make you “other” to the rest of the society. She says that it’s impossible to speak truthfully about poverty without considering its relationship to the economy or wider culture or understanding that it’s a fluid state.
“Poverty is often talked about as if it’s this alien thing that’s somehow separate from the economy but people don’t realise that people move in and out of income categories,” Connell says. “In the last few years, politicians have shunned social systems like housing, health and education. But we provide an extraordinary range of tax benefits to the privileged and to the private school system. [It amounts to] class segregation. A lot of this talk about targeting the poor results in a mess!”
Since Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, we’ve been taught to equate poverty with moral failure, the fault of people who don’t live up to invisible expectations. This distracts us from broken systems that benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of those who truly need help. Recent research from Super Australia reveals that 40 per cent of single retired women live below the poverty line. (This scenario is much worse if you’re Indigenous or from a minority background). The August 2017 HILDA survey revealed that home ownership is increasingly inaccessible to Australians under 40, creating a serious, cross-generational wealth divide. And neoliberalism, that ideology that tells you to do what you love, cares more about exceptional individuals than social progress — with disastrous effects.
Politicians have shunned social systems like housing, health and education. But we provide an extraordinary range of tax benefits to the privileged and to the private school system. [It amounts to] class segregation
“We focus on the wage gap but if you look at women as a whole and men as a whole, then the inequality is much, much greater,” Connell tells SBS. “Women retire earlier and are vulnerable to all kinds of events that put them in dire situations. They also have less wealth, fewer assets and are more dependent on the public sector, which the government has been redirecting resources away from in the last 30 years. Neoliberalism is mixed up in the idea that everyone should be the captain of their own fate but it’s a pirate’s ideology — only the strongest survive! It’s changed our perceptions of the dignity of labour, of human beings. You don’t need to buy into it to see the damage.”
Roger Wilkins, an economist and deputy director of the Melbourne Institute doesn’t believe that we can erase poverty in Australia. But he says we could make dramatic improvements instantly, subject to political will.
“The most important step would be increasing the allowance rate, currently paid to unemployment benefit recipients and single parents when the youngest child is aged eight or over, as well as several other groups of income support recipients,” he says. “Increasing the amount that one can earn without losing benefits, and reducing the rate at which benefits are withdrawn as earnings increase, would also be very effective at reducing poverty.
Neoliberalism is mixed up in the idea that everyone should be the captain of their own fate but it’s a pirate’s ideology — only the strongest survive!
“These measures are not unaffordable and should not reduce policy efforts to improve employment participation — the most effective anti-poverty strategy available to governments. Reducing child care costs for single parents would also be advisable.”
Connell thinks that eliminating poverty is politically challenging. But given how prosperous we are as a country, we owe it to ourselves to try.
“Early in the 20th century, socialists in Australia really believed that we could have social equality and a collectively owned economy in our time but I don’t know if that will happen,” she says. “But in principle, it’s dead easy. We’re such a rich country! There’s no reason that anyone here should be poor by any standard. It’s outrageous that we have any poverty in Australia at all.”
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All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand.
Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.