What is really causing so much poverty in a prosperous country like this?

July 30, 2022

For years we have heard that individual bad choices are the main reason individuals get into strife.

Bad choices are indeed the cause of poverty and insecurity. The bad choices made by successive governments, especially at the federal level, are to blame for the fact that one in six children in prosperous Australia is living in a household experiencing income poverty.

When governments refuse to learn from the people who benefit least from the current state of things, whether they are in paid work or not, bad political choices are always going to be made.

We have been warned that the October federal budget is going to be tough.

Do any of us doubt that the new government has been handed a shit sandwich? The notion of social and environmental vandalism springs to mind as the previous government’s wreckage comes to light, such as the recent revelation that over 200 people a day were getting their NDIS funding slashed by 20 per cent or more during the Morrison government’s final months.

Neoliberals hate and loathe the public sphere. Whether it’s Medicare or the ABC, they hate the principle of us paying what we can and getting what we need.

Despite their desperate calls, now is not the time to continue with their dismal trajectory of dismantling public infrastructure while keeping wages and income support payments low so that the windfall profits enjoyed by the tiny few can be conserved and ever-enlarged.

It is time for a social-democratic break with the neoliberal frame that determined so many bad political choices.

And there are encouraging signs of this, for example the 10 days paid domestic and family violence leave for casual workers, the coming Jobs and Skills Summit and the decisive break with the vicious attacks on workers who have the audacity to organise themselves collectively in unions.

It’s time to make a clean break with our punitive past.

From the invasion onwards, our dominant social structures have been, to varying degrees, and with differential points of impact, predicated on the punishment of sections of society, on the basis of such categories as race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and age.

It’s time for a clean break from precarity, danger and hyper-exploitation. It’s time to revisit and reverse the poor political choices made by the Howard government in 2005 and the Gillard government in 2011, to shift sole parents onto the lower unemployment payment.

It’s time for a clean break from the punitive status quo of keeping unemployment payments deliberately low, humiliating unemployed workers and disciplining workers in general, aiming to lower the wages and conditions people might be willing to accept.

Since the beginning of the pandemic we have learned to cherish the primacy of the social.

We learned that, for all of us to be safe, we need a place to live, a place to work (secure jobs, decent wages, proper income support), a place to learn, and a place to heal. We learned, for example, that poor political choices saw the proportion of social housing in Australia fall from 7 per cent in the early 1990s to 3.1 per cent today.

We need a fresh understanding of how and why we measure poverty and insecurity in Australia. And how we create the conditions for everyone to get a fair crack at happiness: ensuring the minimum wage is actually a living wage, and increasing JobSeeker (currently $46 a day) and other benefits.

It means reimagining the politics of caring, and realigning the relationship between wages and benefits, noting, for example, issues such as high effective marginal tax rates, which especially impact women entering the workforce.

In a Per Capita paper entitled We’ve Got Your Back: Building a Framework to Protect us from Precarity, I have argued that we need to reconfigure the social security system to craft, not a return to the past, but a new social guarantee. We recommend a housing-first approach, a full employment framework, income adequacy, a reframing of conditionality (replacing mutual obligation with mutual respect), the re-development of a national employment service, the application of a gender lens to all policies, and a strong municipal and regional approach to social and economic development, with priority given to First Nations communities’ self-determination.

We need the political will to undo the poor political choices that have left people, including 1.2 million children, waging a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line. It’s time we broke with a political past that dictated that the shit sandwich had their name on it.

Dr John Falzon
The Canberra Times