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Sympathy for the poor or bunyip aristocracy



Australia is a rich country. In fact, Australia is the wealthiest country in the world according to median wealth per adult. Yet Australia still suffers from major poverty and inequality which affects quality of life and the ability of millions of Australians to feed themselves and their families.

Adam Smith's The Wealth of NationsFoodbank, a food relief organisation, just published its 2019 Hunger Report. Compared to its 2018 report the number of people experiencing food insecurity has risen from four million to five million. Food insecurity has been identified as a major cause of mental health problems and social exclusion.

In 2018 the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) in partnership with the University of New South Wales published two reports, one on poverty and another on inequality. The reports found some major disparities between income brackets of those in the highest 20 per cent and those in the lowest 20 per cent. For example, those in the higher bracket have five times more disposable income than those in the lower bracket and 100 times more wealth.

The majority of the lowest 20 per cent generally rely on a Centrelink payment like Newstart which many have criticised as being inadequate. The ACOSS poverty report states that most income support payments are below the poverty line which is roughly $430 per week in Australia.

As Australians we like to think that we are egalitarian, however it seems that we have become more apathetic towards the poor. How else can we explain the three million people living under the poverty line, including 740,000 children, when we have had decades of economic growth?

Adam Smith in his text The Wealth of Nations wrote 'no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable'. Whatever your take on Smith, and there are many, this is undoubtedly true. Poverty and inequality lead to non-participation in work and inhibit social mobility, which has a negative effect on economic growth. The concentration of economic power is bad for democracy. It also leads to community division, as we have seen in many parts of the world, including Australia.

Some writers have contended that Smith was critical of poverty even though he accepted the inevitability of economic inequality. Dennis Rasmussen argues that Smith was worried about extreme economic inequality because it eventually leads to people sympathising more fully with the rich than the poor, and that such a distortion undermines our moral sensibilities because we end up scorning the poor. We become apathetic and, in some cases, even disgusted by the poor as though we need to avoid them at all costs.


"Tax, labour markets, and education are key policy areas ACOSS identified as a means to combat poverty."


That might explain why we have ignored the rising inequality and poverty in Australia. We just can't sympathise with the poor.

During the 2019 federal election, opposition leader Bill Shorten said he would change the minimum wage to a living wage, 'that no person working full-time will be living in poverty'. Such anti-poverty campaign policies seemed to fall on deaf ears. Voters didn't care about those doing it tough.

Other writers have pointed out that Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments was a means to counterbalance his supposed laissez-faire capitalism. There is a burgeoning consensus now that Smith was concerned about the alleviation of poverty. Noam Chomsky in an interview even states that for Smith the main human instinct was sympathy and that Smith was an egalitarian who believed in equality of outcome not opportunity.

It's been almost 45 years since the 1975 Commission of Inquiry into Poverty reported to the Whitlam government on how the law could play a more effective role in diminishing or at least not penalising the poor. The report led to the establishment of legal aid and changes to the criminal law.

But its primary commissioner, professor Ronald Sackville in 2015, on the report's 40-year anniversary, wrote that a substantial number of Australians continue to live in poverty — in fact there has been an increase. As he concedes, the law alone is not enough in combating poverty.

It's not just law that entrenches poverty through sustaining injustice and inequality. Tax, labour markets, and education are key policy areas ACOSS identified as a means to combat poverty. Even social security administration plays a role in producing poverty, as we are seeing with Robodebt.

We shouldn't ignore poverty and its repercussions. We need to show sympathy towards the poor if we want to practice the ethos of egalitarianism. Lest we become a bunyip aristocracy.


Anti-Poverty Week (13 October—19 October) has this year partnered with Raise the Rate which is campaigning to raise the rate of Newstart.


Daniel SleimanDaniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Canberra.

Topic tags: Daniel Sleiman, poverty



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Existing comments

The battlers of SBS-TV's "Struggle Street" are a world away from the salubrious enclaves of upwardly-mobile Australians. Or are they? Certainly, hunger for food is a physical burden and it is outrageous in our land of plenty that anyone experiences that kind of burden. Poverty though isn't only about shortage of money or decent accommodation. It can be about not caring enough about our fellow Australians who are doing it tough. That is a poverty of spirit and while we continue to look away from this problem of inequality then we all suffer. We are all in this together.

Pam | 18 October 2019  

One thing we can all do is to persist in lobbying our federal parliamentarians to adopt the ACOSS poverty report recommendation and increase income support payments to above the poverty line, which is roughly $430 per week in Australia. Another thing we can do is to vote for politicians who are genuinely concerned to increase income equality in Australia and eliminate the extremes of poverty that now exist and have even been growing.

Grant Allen | 18 October 2019  

Thanks, Daniel, for putting the case for those in poverty and turning our eyes to making a choice to be citizens who believe that we can make Australia a better place to live for all.

Alex Nelson | 18 October 2019  

Thanks Pam, Grant and Alex for your thoughtful comments. It's such an important issue and the reality is quite disheartening considering Australia's economic wealth. I agree with you Pam that what we lack is caring for others and also Grant I think you make an important point that political support can go a long way to addressing the issue. Alex, thank you, yes Australia can definitely do better! It's always uplifting to see others engaging with this topic because I believe it concerns many Australians and more voices need to be heard on this matter followed by positive steps/actions to find solutions to alleviate poverty so that we earn 'the lucky country' epithet.

Daniel Sleiman | 18 October 2019  

Thank you for the article; it must be frustrating for such eloquence and concise observation to be countered by obtuse Ministers dismissing all similar appeals with the party-line jingle: "best form of welfare is a job". The appalling sadness is that our leaders must actually believe this position and deliberately reject and deflect humanitarian approach; how else could they sleep at night? It's an insult to Australians to continue to refer to the system as Newstart; aside from the obvious, that its not even a real word there's nothing New and the start may not be forthcoming - at least not for a very long time. Centrelink's primary defense is the required use of their portal for all Newstart users - it is not possible to register for Newstart unless through the portal, no paper forms exist. So picture persons in poverty somehow being able to apply for 20 jobs per month, attend job interviews and report all this activity on line...for real? My understanding is Marie Antoinette didn't actually say "Let them eat cake" but my impression is that those who take portfolios in Human / Social services are equally misguided in their opinion of their own suitability to understand and deal with those less fortunate...

Ray | 19 October 2019  

I hadn't encountered Daniel's voice-for-the-voiceless until now. Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing a writer who dares to prick our national conscience!

Michael Furtado | 19 October 2019  

Thanks for an interesting article Daniel. I was prompted to read the SBS article about you (November 2018) titled ‘I left high school at 13 but went on to get four degrees’. I felt I could relate to a good deal of the quotations attributed to you in that article. I left school at 15, being the eldest of seven children, and I too put myself through an Economics degree as a part time mature student. You say your ‘anti-establishment viewpoint didn’t sit well with conservative teachers and private school trust fund babies’. I went to a private/Catholic school until our family financial situation dictated that I leave school and go to work. Being a product of a Catholic/private school I guess your derision applies to me. Thanks for your perceptive insights of our character failings. In all my time at University I can only recall encountering one ‘conservative teacher’. I certainly encountered many ‘anti-establishment long-term student activists’ A great many of them were also very proud of and superior in their humility. Seems like not much has changed.

Brian b | 19 October 2019  

Bill Shorten said he would change the minimum wage to a living wage... But as much as I remember, he mainly came with 'climate change'. His poverty message disappeared under his climate change policy. Who would have heard him on poverty or believe him? His energy policy would make utilities more expensive.

Min Kyaw | 21 October 2019  

We may not be able to teach the world to sing but, we can enable participation in digital text based learning through our digital health and literacy campaign where far to many are excluded from life-long learning simply because they suffer eye-strain, blurred or worse double vision - Score My Screen at: htpps://www.screenfatigue.me.uk

Nigel Evelyn-Dupree | 22 October 2019  

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