I have a very learned friend who has unfortunately moved away and of whom I now see little, however we do keep in touch via email and the occasional letter (yes, the handwritten kind!). She loves to chew over ideas and in a recent letter to me raised the idea that poverty in Australia is a choice. Her belief is that hard work, investment in self education and diligence will reap rewards, and that it is too easy for people to fall into a ‘victim’ mentality.
My dear friend is widely travelled, has seen some first-hand examples of extreme poverty and believes that Australia is a land of opportunity for those who are conscientious, but said she was looking forward to my opinion on the matter. Below is my reply.
“I agree with you – to an extent. I agree that many Australians have had life comparatively easy and are ignorant to the real suffering of some of our overseas neighbours. (If you get a moment, I have written a couple of blog posts on this very topic – ‘the stink of affluence’ and ‘how to be happy’). I also applaud your practical contribution, though personally I prefer to look after our ‘own’ first – for example, our local farmers and their high suicide rates due to their hopeless situation – their income at the mercy of the weather after many years of drought, foreign imports and high debts the main factors. I prefer to see Australian money go to people like this in the first instance. So to reiterate, I agree that many Australians are ignorant to real suffering, but I am confident there is plenty of real suffering right here in Australia. I note your request for ‘robust evidence to the contrary’ so here is a little. You claim the social welfare system is ‘undermining the dignity of people who can and should work’. I disagree. In one State alone, as at December 2014, the unemployment rate stood at 6.1%. In January 2015, it was 6.4%. There were 16000 part time jobs created, but over 28000 full time jobs lost (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). So it is somewhat naïve to suggest people ‘can and should work’ when employment for all is a mathematical impossibility. Regarding dignity for the unemployed – their income is less than that of an old-aged pensioner – someone who should have no debts (e.g., mortgage) by the time they have reached pension age, yet a young person on the ‘dole’ is given less to live on, and on this meagre income is expected to have clothing and footwear that is interview-suitable, and transport to get to an interview (let us not forget Joe Hockey’s clanger about poor people driving cars!**). This forces many to remain longer at home and simply pushes the cost burden onto their parents – good thing the retirement age has been raised! Or, in the case of an adult who has lost their job, mortgage stress may result. I understand that a ratepayer on NewStart will not receive a Council rebate on their Rates, whereas an old-age, single parent or disability pensioner will, providing they receive the maximum pension payment. Equitable? I think not. Dignified? Hardly.
I agree that there are major problems with our social welfare system – my main personal gripe is with parenting payments – but overall, I see welfare in terms of a ‘business’. If one has a business, there is always a small percentage of ‘bad debt’ that is expected and carried. With our welfare system, likewise there will always be a very small proportion of people who look to rort the system, so I liken payments to these people as writing off a small percentage as ‘bad debt’. Centrelink has its checks and balances and does what it can to keep this to a minimum, for which I am grateful, as I am a taxpayer too and see the graphs as to where my tax has gone each year! Taking a wide view, I personally would rather live in a benevolent society like ours where everyone is cared for (to a point, but I have neither the time nor inclination to go on about the public health system now!) and I personally am happy to accept (and fund) the minute percentage of bad eggs who take advantage, rather than live in a country which has scant regard for human life and an inadequate welfare system. Every day I feel more and more blessed to have been born here in our beautiful country. ”
There was obviously more to the letter than this, both from my friend and from myself, but I hoped to share with you all my opinion on the topic of poverty in Australia. I welcome your thoughts also, but will not promise any further debate on this one 😉
** For those of you who may not have heard this, our current Treasurer Joe Hockey came under fire for saying that the planned fuel tax increases wouldn’t hurt poorer Australians because “The poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases. But, they are opposing what is meant to be, according to the Treasury, a progressive tax.” Mr Hockey has since apologised, when the Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to back the Treasurer’s comments.