Cat's eye view on Australia's poor


Anti-Poverty Week posterThe very first article I wrote for Eureka Street reflected on the interaction between attitudes to poverty and public policies around it. It was published in 2003. It rose out of an unsettling encounter with a level of privation that I thought did not exist in my adopted country.

I had gone to a house in the northern suburbs to collect a cat. A colleague at a mentoring program had told me one of her case-families had kittens they'd be glad to give away. And so we found ourselves, in a house with only an armchair and a mattress for furniture, surrounded by five unkempt kids, speaking to a woman with a shy, weary face.

We selected a male tabby and gave the kids a box of chocolates. The eldest boy carried the kitten for us as we walked to our car. 'You'll take care of him, right?' he asked, his gaze direct and serious, the question tugging inexplicably deep. It wasn't until we drove away that it sunk in — where I had just been. I felt the weight of it.

I had worked in areas of disadvantage in my native Philippines, as a student volunteer and as a staff member at a social research institute. It was completely unnerving to recognise poverty in a quiet suburban street in Australia.

Until then, I'd thought everyone was fine. That in fact everything was great — universal healthcare, employment assistance, family benefits, subsidies for tertiary study. I had driven past street after street of brick houses, assuming there were well-fed, well-clothed families in all of them.

I discovered instead that there was a layer of Australian society that was largely invisible. If the poor ever appeared in media discussions, loaded terms were used: 'dole bludger', 'welfare dependent', 'undeserving' — all of which signified blame. I struggled to reconcile this negativity with the kid who had just given me a kitten, probably one of the few things he could call his own.

It is disheartening to see that negative attitudes toward poverty remain unchanged and continue to shape public policy.

When I wrote that article, there were an estimated 1.5 million Australians living in poverty. The Australian Council of Social Service reported recently that there are now more than 2.2 million Australians living on less than half the median wage. The poverty line for a single adult is calculated at less than $358 weekly disposable income, at a time when the median weekly house rent in Melbourne is $360 (the cheapest compared to other cities).

The anodyne response to these issues suggests that people are either in denial, or are falsely comparing poverty here to the absolute poverty experienced overseas. Of course, they may simply not care.

The recent downgrade in sole parent payments to lever 'workforce participation' is symptomatic of a welfare system that elevates individual agency above the social conditions that inhibit it. The very things that had led to my naïve perception that everyone was fine are the same things that are used against people who are not fine.

Yet it is clear that specific groups are meeting obstacles that they cannot hurdle, or that are not present for other groups. Sole parents (mostly women), elderly singles and social security-reliant families are at high risk of poverty. The idea of individual agency becomes inadequate against such patterns.

The notion that people need 'incentives' to work — namely, cuts to government assistance — is also inadequate when one considers that such payments are precisely enabling many Australians to work part-time while raising families or study in hope of a better-paying job.

In any case, it is one thing to lever workforce entry, and another to guarantee that suitable jobs are in place and that jobs growth will match increased participation. Without the second half of the equation, government erodes dignity in the name of empowerment. It strips work of its humanising properties, reducing it to a number of hours that satisfy malleable criteria.

It defies good sense, as does the idea that individual agency, or lack of it, is an obstacle to participation. In order to argue that people only need to pick up their bootstraps to be completely self-reliant, one would have to assume that everybody starts out on a level field.

This would be an outright denial of the truth: that we do not get to choose the circumstances of our birth and childhood, though these have the greatest impact of our life; that these circumstances vary widely and may cast a shadow across generations despite individual efforts to step away; that even those of us born in the best circumstances can make life-changing mistakes, fall ill or experience accidents that leave us no choice but to rely on government and hope that policy changes will not leave us worse off.

Denial of these truths lies at the heart of negative attitudes toward people living in poverty, and influences many of the policies that affect them. It is an abdication of our responsibility to vulnerable members of society. This is unacceptable in a country with the means to support them.

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator, and tweeter. This week is Anti-Poverty Week.


Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Anti-Poverty Week



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Existing comments

A beautifully put reflection, Fatima, thank you. Australia is in an extremely healthy economic position and yet 'we' the electorate (or is that 'we' the focus group members?) begrudge the assistance given to those who are not sharing in that wealth (and/or those from whom the wealth has been gleaned, in many circumstances). As the article points out, blaming impoverished people for being poor is not a new phenomenon. Systemic factors in generating and maintaining poverty continue to be ignored by many politicians of varying ideological bents.

Barry G | 17 October 2012  

Does Julia Gillard understand all this? The evil of her recent welfare cuts to single mothers is far greater than that of the behaviour Alan Jones was so furiously condemned for.

Joe Castley | 17 October 2012  

What has been happening to the poor in our society makes a mockery of the way we see ourselves - that we are a caring nation, that we honour a fair go. As an old-time feminist I am horrified that on the same day that parliamentarians were falling over themselves to display their feminist colours, single parents with children eight and over were bumped off the parenting pension. Over the past three decades we have turned our society into a business, plain and simple, with no room at all for humane considerations.

Sara Dowse | 17 October 2012  

I too find these articles heartbreaking and each time I wonder 'Why can't we do something more'. Donating to charities never seems to make a dent in anything. In this article, the 'caseworker' was referred to. Can one register to be a helper or a surrogate grandmother? I'm sure many people would be glad to do something helpful the "hands-on" way.
Mary M.

Mary Maraz | 18 October 2012  

Some years ago when I was reliant on Newstart and experiencing severe financial hardship, I approached a local emergency support agency in my area. I told the worker (a trained volunteer) that I lived alone in a private rental, had no family, support network or children: that my only company was my (then 8-year old) neutered male cat. To my dismay and disbelief this worker said, 'Well you have to get real, hun, and get rid of the cat!'. I asked her if she suggests that people who have more than two children get rid of the extra kids. The 'something more' that can be done is to have tighter screening when it comes to placing people like that in positions where they have power and authority' over who receives assistance and how much assistance they 'deserve' to receive.

Anita J. | 21 October 2012  

Thank you Fatima, this is a great article. It does seem that our policy makers in Australia have little understanding of the spirals of poverty that some members of our society can get into, through no fault of their own. The punitive inducements to work are so heartless and leave the front line of our social workers to implement policy they cannot condone or understand. Poverty is shocking overseas, but we need to start at home to address those to whom our responsibility is greatest.

John Fleming | 22 October 2012  

Current attitudes towards the poor are indicative of the malaise of the present Gillard Govt. "For your penance, ALP, endure Tony Abbott as PM for at least three years, while you sit with sackcloth and ashes and repent of your ways, and contemplate how you are going to return to Labor principles as outlined by Chifley's 'Light on the Hill' speech." Anita J, I think you had a rather untrained volunteer. Keeping pets is a well documented way of keeping people happier. Has anyone been to Sacred Heart Centre at Darlinghurst and seen the cats of the Palliative Care ward?

Bruce S | 16 April 2013  

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