Unemployment angels and demons

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Building Bridges, Not WallsNo matter how you twist them the facts about poverty in the lucky country just keep shaming us.

You can see the tip of the iceberg on the streets of our capital cities and regional centres where you will come across people whose lives are exposed to the elements and to the eyes of all who pass by.

We are even seeing new divisions emerging among low-income households! Fourteen years ago the unemployment benefit was 91 per cent of the single pension. Now it is only 65 per cent.

Peter Whiteford, of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW projects a fall to a miserable 33 per cent. He notes that, after you take out the costs of the cheapest capital city accommodation your average single Newstart benefit recipient was left to survive on $16.50 a day. 

Australia spends less on transfer payments than the average of the wealthier nations in the OECD.

Data released this week and prepared by the St Vincent de Paul Society's Victorian Policy and Research Manager, Gavin Dufty, on relative price changes, has shown that people on low incomes are being forced to make such devastating choices as whether to go the doctor or buy food. As he puts it: 'to survive today you've got to compromise the future'.

The research shows that the price of essentials such as electricity and rent has gone through the roof over the past six years while discretionary items such as entertainment and holidays have increased only a little or, in the case of high street fashion, have actually gotten cheaper.

Two months ago I received an email from a young man in Queensland. He was writing to thank Vinnies for the stance it takes on the side of people who are demonised for being unemployed. He told me his story. Here are some bits of it:

I rent a single bedroom unit for $200 per week.

Around five weeks ago I was retrenched from my job of four years. I do not own a car and do not have sufficient funds to purchase a car. Public transport being what it is around here makes finding work very hard. In fact one job I applied for that I got an interview for I had to knock back as I realised I could not get to the place of employment via public transport.

With Centrelink payments and rent assistance I would get around $295 per week. I need power ... and a phone, and I use the internet to help find work ... so without even thinking about food, clothes, transport etc. ... I have around $40 a week to live on ...

Now I'm in a situation where I can't afford to live here so I am thinking of going back to Tasmania to live with my mother ... because the Government in its wisdom doesn't pay a single person enough to exist on their own, I find I have to move to a state with less job prospects ...

I am currently on Newstart sickness benefits for anxiety and depression brought on by my situation. I don't know what to do ... keep going I guess ... that's all you can do...

Keep going. Yes. That's all any of us can do.

There are those who will say: Mate, you can turn this around if you want to. It's a matter of choice. They are wrong.

I don't blame people for thinking this way. Sometimes it is all they know. They hear the relentless message that people are to blame for their own marginalisation. It follows that to support someone in this situation you are 'enabling' them to keep doing the wrong thing.

But social security payments are not the end of the story. Neither are they the beginning. We are in the situation we are in because of a gradually increasing transfer of wealth and resources away from the commons and towards the private few.

In the 17th Century an anonymous English wit penned the following piece of doggerel:

The Law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the Common,
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the Common from under the goose.

Then, as now, the common wealth and common good are systematically purloined. Then, as now, it is far easier to construct a method of individual punishment in place of a vision of social justice.

The 2011 Bishops' Social Justice Statement Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system points out that between 1984 and 2008, while rates of crime either stayed steady or fell, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled. The majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community.

Aboriginal imprisonment rates have jumped by more than 50 per cent over the past ten years, with an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report showing that members of the First Peoples now account for over a quarter of the prison population in Australia.

It is a dangerous thing to denounce the causes of oppression. It is also dangerously counter-cultural to announce that another kind of world is possible. But, as the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero put it so beautifully:

Even when they call us mad,
when they call us subversives and communists
and all the other epithets they put on us,
we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes,
which have turned everything upside down.

We are called by our common humanity to struggle for a just society;  for the sacredness of those on the margins, and their liberation from the structures that exclude them; for a 'turning upside down', to use the revolutionary principle of the Beatitudes. There is nothing more beautiful or more human than this struggle. Anti-poverty week is a time to revisit this imperative. 


John FalzonDr John Falzon is an advocate with a deep interest in philosophy, society, politics and poetry. He is the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council Chief Executive and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 


Topic tags: John Falzon, Anti Poverty Week

 

 

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A realistic appraisal from someone who knows and understands the plight of the unemployed .The problems and inequities deserve greater publicity and a political response that favours the needy , rather than slogans that demonise them.
Barry O'Keefe | 19 October 2011


Thank you John,for your reminder of our sacredness.This honouring is something we can give to each other every day and become life saving 'wellsprings'of hope and deep love.

The Beatitudes; something I grew up seeing and hearing all through my education and family life.The 'ordinary' ; this word really nullifies the mystery and sacredness of human acts, all struggles.

"There is nothing more beautiful or more human than this struggle".

Today beauty is perhaps still regarded as classical perfection, as it always has been sought as though it is a sign of divinity and those who are 'beautiful' are rewarded tenfold.

We still honour false gods of fame, physical perfection and wealth.

The poor grow in alarming numbers in our 'civilised' societies and millions are left to die in 'under developed' countries.

There really is a passing on of blame and shame -it's not our fault.The fault lies with the poor. Unemployment,alcoholism,drugs,gambling,domestic violence,disability,sickness,old age-these are all shameful 'problems' in our 'civilised' fortresses. We have demonised the ones most vulnerable,the ones who cannot 'handle' life.


John you have reminded us of these revolutionary words.


You have reminded us who have ears, eyes and mouths and hands.




catherine | 19 October 2011


Wasn't it the Pope who closed down those priests in South America who were trying to upset the status quo and show the poor-folk where their oppression came from?

Much of the attitude in Australia that regards the poor as being the sole designer of their status and fate has been the easily latched on to religious thinking of 'the deserving poor', couple to the Tory view of noblesse oblige.

This 'deserving poor' concept has invaded the ALP these days, it is no longer the preserve of the Coalition.

Having a guaranteed spot in handing out charity, as the various forms of 'the church' do, ensures they will never seek to undermine the very reasons for wealth disparity the author highlights.

Taking on ever more of the work governments should be undertaking also makes it far less likely that any church leader will ever speak out and hold politicians and the gormless voting public to account.

If we are going for ditties, I recall one too:

It's the same the whole world over,
it's the poor what gets the blame,
it's the rich what gets the pleasure,
ain't it all a bleedin' shame.


Harry Wilson | 19 October 2011


A timely reminder, John! I really have difficulties with Julia's very protestant, pious "welfare to work" ideas! She has very little imagination OR she just does not read enough! I really don't know what to think of her anymore! We seem to be heading to a situation such as was shown in "4 Corners" last week. Unbelievable!
Nathalie | 19 October 2011


John, thank you for reminding us of our duty to those who are marginalised. Prayer is good but good works are essential.
Clare Walsh | 19 October 2011


John, as always, you write movingly and authentically. Natalie, it is not just the labor government that appears committed to the demonisation of the unemployed and other marginalised; the Coalition would be far worse.
Stephen Kellett | 19 October 2011


The quoted doggerel about the theft of the commons is too easily glossed over, but I believe it points a way forward.

One's right to live doesn't involve an obligation to work for anyone. To live justly is a right. There is no responsibility to meet our needs by working for any other person for payment or exchange.

However, neither do we have any right to have others provide anything for us.

To provide for our own needs by working directly with the gifts of nature is a right, and, while few may choose it, this option must remain a right.

LAND
Since food, shelter and clothing all come directly from the land, then access to land where the individual can provide for themselves must be a right, limited of course by the rights of all others, as expressed for example in just and equitable building regulations, etc.

This right of access to land for survival also necessarily limits the right any other person may have to hold title over land for any other purpose.

Society seems to have forgotten about this right in its attitude to those who claim unemployment benefits (see www.bit.ly/9O70vQ)
Chris Baulman | 20 October 2011


The quoted doggerel about the theft of the commons is too easily glossed over, but I believe it points a way forward. One's right to live doesn't involve an obligation to work for anyone. To live justly is a right. There is no responsibility to meet our needs by working for any other person for payment or exchange. However, neither do we have any right to have others provide anything for us. To provide for our own needs by working directly with the gifts of nature is a right, and, while few may choose it, this option must remain a right. LAND Since food, shelter and clothing all come directly from the land, then access to land where the individual can provide for themselves must be a right, limited of course by the rights of all others, as expressed for example in just and equitable building regulations, etc. This right of access to land for survival also necessarily limits the right any other person may have to hold title over land for any other purpose. Society seems to have forgotten about this right in its attitude to those who claim unemployment benefits (see www.bit.ly/9O70vQ)
Chris Baulman | 20 October 2011


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