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Stories from the Struggletown Library


Library booksThere was a liberal use of corporal punishment in my high school.

It was in Blacktown in the late 1970s. We were seen as a loutish bunch of lads who needed a firm hand. Most of us copped a taste of the strap or the cane from time to time, even running a bit of a competition to see how many cuts we could notch up from any one teacher. It never seemed unusual to any of us even though at times the violence was brutal and gratuitous.

I don't feel the least bit of pain in remembering any of this but one thing is clear: it did absolutely nothing to help my education.

It was the libraries, both school and municipal, where I did most of my learning. I had a deeply enriching time there and feel a debt of gratitude to the librarians and to those who championed the cause of public libraries.

I don't know what drove me to the libraries, but I am certain it was not the stick.

Why, I wonder, in these more enlightened times, do we continue to see a class-based approach to the education and training of people who are living on the edges of the economy; a class-based approach that begins, moreover, with the assumption that the more disadvantaged you are classified as being, the more you need to be controlled and coerced?

The 2011 Federal Budget solemnly proclaims the Government's faith in the virtues of education and training, primarily, it must be said, to prepare you for the even higher virtue of work, spruiked with true Calvinist conviction. The urgency with which we must get potential workers into the labour market is intoned as a matter of national emergency.

It's funny how quickly we are meant to forget that many of these people were seen as expendable and surplus to the needs of capital in times past. Others have been injured while on the job, sometimes after years of hard and unrewarding work.

It appears to matter little. All are bundled together by Government, Opposition, and the other dismal cheer-leaders for paternalism, as being in need of at least a little nudge if not a firm hand. The people, and, let's admit it, entire locations, that have been previously judged to be surplus populations, are now described as the unwilling workers that the nation is crying out for.

Along with the financial penalty stick and the humiliation stick they are also subjected to the stick of tiresome moralising; told in no uncertain terms that the time has come for them to take responsibility for a change. The Government and business community are doing all that they can to help you (so the narrative goes). Now you've got an obligation to help yourself and stop being dependent on the state.

This discourse is as inaccurate as it is offensive. It ignores the real stories that are happening in real places. Instead it wallows in the shameful rhetoric of welfare-bashing.

A strong, flexible social security system, one that actually delivers social security rather than insecurity and vilification, is essential if we are to build a fairer Australia. A good social security system, however, is not, in itself the answer. It should be a means to social, economic and political inclusion rather than an end in itself.

'Welfare', as the Americans like to call it, is neither the problem nor the solution, any more than hospitals are the cause of illness or, indeed, the creators of good health for society. You wouldn't want to be without hospitals, would you? And neither should we acquiesce to the whittling away of a robust social security system. Especially not under the guise of forcing people to learn and be trained.

The Government can threaten with all the sticks under the sun but this will not lead people to learning. They can suspend a young mother's entire income if they want. This will cause hardship for both mother and child and it will mean that the young woman will need to get assistance from her extended family or friends, neighbours or a charity. But will it instill a desire to learn? It will not.

It will, on the other hand, teach the young woman a little bit about society. It will teach her that she is of little value and that she is able to be controlled and disciplined and made to ask for charity. It will teach her perhaps how to develop innovative ways of survival; how to work within, or around, the social security system. It will teach her many things about where she sits in the social order; things that I fervently hope she will one day challenge, critique and, with others, undo.

During the welfare-to-work measures imposed by the Howard Government a fascinating report, entitled Much Obliged, was written by Mark Considine from the University of Melbourne, Gavin Dufty from the St Vincent de Paul Society, and Stephen Ziguras from the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Their research, which received far too little recognition, demonstrated that increasing compliance measures under the hallowed banner of mutual obligation did little to actually facilitate employment participation. In their survey of the experience of disadvantaged job-seekers they found:

Contrary to the aims of active labour market policy, the emphasis on compulsory activities appears to generate avoidance and resentment. While people may comply, these requirements are in practice not a means to finding work, but rather a necessity for remaining eligible for benefits. In effect, then, the system operates for many disadvantaged job seekers not as 'welfare to work' but 'welfare as work'.

And poorly paid work, at that: since 1996 our unemployment benefit has fallen from 54 per cent to 45 per cent of the after-tax minimum wage.

You don't create a smart and confident Australia by taking to people with the stick or keeping them below the poverty line. This might have sat well with the moral prescriptions of the mid to late 19th century and it might be a clever way of scoring political points, but it will not build a stronger, smarter economy or a fairer society.

But let us, with unabashed nerdiness, return to my beloved library.

One of the great attractions of the library was its diversity. All sorts of books sat next to each other, offering all sorts of windows onto the world. When, one time, I asked the school librarian to explain the torn-out page from Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain, she told me that one of the Brothers performed this act of censorship because there was a rude word in one of the poems. Of course I had no choice then but to save up and buy a copy and yes, it is still on my shelf.

How welcome it would be to see a greater diversity of responses to the diversity of stories that bring people into the social security system and the labour market; how good to see no more pages torn out of people's stories — no more pretense about the conditions in which people are struggling. Sadly, it's sometimes a matter of one stick fits all. Some of the most innovative attempts at social policy involve creating different sizes and shapes of sticks. Not the kind of diversity we hope for!

Disability advocacy groups have been good at explaining the concept of the social relations of disability, whereby the negative impact of disability is constructed and exacerbated by the barriers our socio-economic formation erects, especially in regard to economic and social participation.

This is a useful conceptual framework and is profoundly applicable to all who are condemned for the sin of un-productivity. People are made and pulled apart by social and economic structures that dehumanise, compartmentalise, destroy, humiliate and blame.

We build walls around people on the basis of their race, class, gender or disability. The same people are then condemned for lacking the 'aspiration' to scale these walls.

With both sides of politics singing the praises of 'tough love' in the months preceding the Budget we would have been surprised had there not been anything there that smacked of coercion and paternalism. The Budget wasn't all negative; not by a long stretch. The investment in mental health is groundbreaking. I do hope, however, that the punitive treatment of people on social security benefits will not cause greater problems with mental health.

A harsher welfare compliance regime and the extension of compulsory income management are measures that assume that if you are disadvantaged your problem is idleness. Idleness is not the problem. The problem is entrenched inequality.

The fact remains that for a single unemployed person, the battle to survive on $34 a day is waged from below the poverty line. The Government is right to look at this and say that life should be better, but wrong to claim that the answer lies in making life harder.

I am very hopeful that during this time of low unemployment many people will find jobs. The story is not, however, as simple as it seems. Unemployment rates are still high in some locations and among certain age groups. Professor Bill Mitchell of the University of Newcastle's Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE) reminds us:

The evidence continues to show that the Australian labour market continues to fail our teenagers (15–19-year-olds) and exclude them from employment growth. Teenage employment growth in the last month remained negative losing 500 jobs (net) — loss of 5000 full-time jobs and gain of 4500 part-time jobs. The overall decline in teenage employment has been a continuing trend over the last few years.

At a time when we keep emphasising the future challenges facing the nation in terms of an ageing population and rising dependency ratios the economy still fails to provide enough work (and on-the-job experience) for our teenagers who are our future workforce ...

It makes a mockery of those (like the bank economists and our politicians) who claim we are close to full employment. An economy that excludes its active teenagers from any employment growth at all is not one that is using its existing capacity to its potential. An economy that sheds 73,000 jobs that were formerly held by teenagers (including 72,000 full-time jobs) is nowhere near full employment.

I am confident that no matter how hard the forces of coercion and control are arraigned to break people, people will continue to be resilient in the face of oppression. We are all broken in some ways, but out of our shared brokenness we shall create a new kind of society.

The women and men who are currently not listened to still have their stories, still carry the knowledge of what has happened, what is happening, and what needs to happen.

Another kind of world is possible because of the truth that is told by those who live on the margins. And if we look a little bit closer, we will see that the 'margins' are actually at the heart of our society. It all depends on where you stand.

Finally, I wish to express my deep sense of gratitude and solidarity with all the community organisations working with, and on the side of, people who are pushed to the margins. There is a natural affinity among all who listen to the stories of the people on the margins and who work to nurture the seeds of a new society growing from those stories. 


John FalzonDr John Falzon is a sociologist, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia, and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 

Topic tags: Federal Budget, welfare-to-work, John Howard, Much Obliged, Mark Considine, Gavin Dufty, Stephen Ziguras



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Existing comments

Thanks John, now 76, I got the cane, but books poetry and music, song lyrics kept me interested. It is allowing the young to know the library and to explore and find for themselves. Two grandsons, the first gift at birth was a book and when I phone to tell them to watch the post on their birthday, they smile and say it is a book grandma, yes it is. They are now 12 and 14 and creative making stories, making songs in their head which I can share with them,

margaret o'reilly | 25 May 2011  

John Falzon is a mighty writer and this is one of his best. Thank you, John.

David B | 25 May 2011  

There used to be a sticker that some people put on the rear window of their car: IF YOU CAN READ THIS NOTICE, BE GRATEFUL TO A PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHER. A Primary school teacher in a library can be an education system

Ray O'Donoghue | 25 May 2011  

Thank you John for such a wonderful piece. It certainly raises serious issues of how those on the margins are understood and treated by Governments and others who have no understanding of their position.

Deirdre | 25 May 2011  

I heard a Roman Catholic sister say the other day that we have to respect the human integrity of all people in education. If one has any disability in my case a stammer, it is very degrading and off putting to be told that your impediment will stop you developing as a "Normal" person. The film "The King's Speech" brought this out as regards King George VI.

John Ozanne | 25 May 2011  

A profound read!

Kay Bushnell | 25 May 2011  

Thanks John for an enlightening essay . As a theme of Social Justice it is profound and thought provoking. I am passing your essay onto my school teacher wife who teaches (discusses) the topic with her students

Gavin | 25 May 2011  

Was this article ever at the head of the column in Eureka Street? I nearly missed it and no one should miss it. It should be read by every Australian, especially every member of the Labor Party and every member of the Christian Church.

Coming, as it does, at the same time as an excellent article on asylum seekers, it provokes the thought that our country is blessed with many prophets major and minor. I must know a dozen people who are trying to find ways of telling the truth about asylum seekers on stage and I know many who know and speak the truth about the unemployed, scapegoats of a prosperous socity. How to penetrate the ears of the people?

Jim Jones | 26 May 2011  

Good to read you again, John! I still have an article published in the Canberra Times in 2009 where you wrote about the Aborigines in NT and the Intervention. I just made a summary of 4 issues in this Intervention this month 2011 and found your points (and language!) enormously helpful. Together with Jack Waterford who writes regularly on Aboriginal issues, you are both certainly worth reading. and you are right! I'm rather fed up with the force of the coercive powers of Julia & Co against the most vulnerable in our society. Not being Anglo-Saxon I can't understand the Jasenism of this society against the poor. They really want them to suffer, not to help them. Strange "compassion" this is.And the pollies are so out of touch is risible if it weren't so sad. Hope you keep on writing, mate! Nathalie

Nathalie | 26 May 2011  

thank you John! you made tears come to my eyes that someone 'up there' knew and understood and could express the situation so well. And low pay and underemployment and travel times add to the horror if you find the work those who are poor are deemed worthy of. Dear God, what a country and people we have become. While those who are humiliated and downtrodden are educated by the press and TV to blame themselves. Families are divided by this. Single parents and older people still paying off their simple houses are so stressed and giving up. Many live on credit which mounts continually. Extra stress is being pushed to working, leaving unattended and/or sick children. Will I be charged? what will they get up to? How to explain to Centrelink why I lost this job too? How do I keep healthy with shift work so I can be there for them when they are awake? Single parents (mostly separated or widowed) without the easily accessed assistance of Scandanavian society = two jobs unassisted for the supposed benefit of yourself in the future. Lowest paid work, lack of training, must choose work over education where you might find work to enable good money and healthy conditions and longer employment. Decisions made by people who cannot imagine the present day situation, even if they were in the same situation a generation ago. Extra money does not make up for the extra policing, judgement, threats to security and punishment regime. For those caught up in the need for assistance (I won't say welfare) and shared rights as citizens, the humiliation and denial of any privacy, the need to repeatedly bare your pain to be even listened to..all this is demoralising and very very detrimental to a society which likes to see itself as having cohesion and a fair go for all. Businessses used to train new workers and train apprentices while now they choose to go off-shore rather than maintain skills here. Government attitudes support this. It seems the history of this country is one long battle between those who want to own all the wealth by whatever means, and those without financial power. I do pity the young people growing up in a country which teaches them to spend anything they have, to bully others as our parliamentarians do, to denigrate without knowledge those who are different. Like you I used libraries and librarians. Thank you

audrey winther | 27 May 2011  

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