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The forgotten people

Even the most conservative estimate of poverty in Australia is sobering. At the end of the 20th century, over one and a half million Australians were living in poverty in the midst of increased economic prosperity. Yet research into attitudes towards poverty suggests that while few Australians dispute its existence in the country, many fail to acknowledge it within their community.

In 1999, the Brotherhood of St Laurence conducted a study called Understanding Poverty. Only 56 per cent of respondents considered poverty in Australia to be a significant problem. In fact, poverty was placed last among eight prompted issues as the most important facing the country. In contrast, unemployment and the divide between rich and poor were rated as major concerns.

This apparent contradiction is an example of what John Fox calls the ‘silo’ perception of poverty, where relations between problems are not adequately recognised. Fox is the co-ordinator of social planning at Hume City Council in Victoria. He says that in reality the volume of job advertisements is not an adequate measure of opportunity, and tends to promote assumptions that the poor aren’t taking advantage of vacancies.

‘It’s not enough that the job is advertised,’ he points out, ‘but that people have the chance to undertake education, have access to transport, child care, things that make it possible for them to take up the job.’

Fox asserts that there is a cultural focus on individual responsibility, such that community fails to understand why some people are barred from employment. ‘We look at things, if you like, from the individual out, rather than from society in. Part of that is saying that the individual is completely responsible, that the individual can overcome any odds.’

Sally Jope, a social researcher on poverty issues, believes that this emphasis on individual behaviour feeds negative images of the poor as welfare cheats. ‘If you talk about poor people,’ she observes, ‘you can individualise it and point out shortcomings. You can distance yourself from it. “Those people, there’s something wrong with them”. That sort of approach.’

In this way, she says, distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ are cultivated. The problem of poverty becomes a problem of what to do with the poor.

Jope believes that government relies on such attitudes. ‘If we appreciated poverty as a real issue,’ she says, ‘then there would be budgetary implications, and government is very much about withdrawing and leaving it to the market to sort out everything.’ She adds that this economic model discriminates between those who have capital and those who do not, and that those with meagre resources find their means being consistently diminished.

It is not just about resources, either. According to Fox, expectations about personal effort do not address the fact that poverty affects diverse groups of people. ‘This isn’t about individual decisions,’ he says. ‘If it were, you wouldn’t have particular groups consistently being affected.’

It was with this thought in mind that he helped design Hume City Council’s inquiry focusing on these sections of the community most at risk of falling into poverty—women (particularly as single parents), Indigenous people, young people and the elderly. ‘We want them to identify the obstacles that prevent them from living the life that they would choose,’ says Fox.

He suggests that because policy is shaped by the extent to which issues are raised in public discussions, some of these obstacles may be underpinned by perceptions of poverty in Australia. ‘That comes back to asking what poverty really is,’ he says. ‘Most people tend to use the absolute model. Most people expect to see a person literally homeless, in rags and starving. That’s the image we have from the developing world.’

Mark Peel, author of the book The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty, agrees. ‘The problem with poverty in a rich country,’ he says, ‘is that it will always be contrasted with poverty somewhere else. While it would be ludicrous to claim that in Australia there is poverty approaching the magnitude of, say, many African societies, so what? The problem is that a number of people, which may or may not be one million or two million, are living a kind of privation and lack of opportunity that is unjust.’

Peel suggests that this idea of relative scale leads to the conclusion that it’s not a problem, or that it’s a different one from elsewhere. He notes that the poor person overseas is not considered responsible for his or her own suffering, as opposed to the poor person in Australia.

‘In a rich society,’ he explains, ‘people want to believe that the poor have themselves to blame. There is a commitment to the idea that class structure is a rough estimation of your effort and value as a person. That people who are at the top of the class structure are the best people, and that those at the bottom are the worst people.’

Peel attributes such attitudes to the kinds of stories and language used when talking about poverty. The use of phrases such as ‘welfare dependency’ fosters the perception that such language is the only basis for conversation. According to Peel, it is a conversation that does not acknowledge that, for the most part, inheritance and luck are instrumental to where one ends up on the economic spectrum.

Despite the negative images, attitudes towards the poor are not entirely cynical. ‘I think we tend to overexaggerate the extent to which people’s hearts have hardened,’ says Peel. ‘Most people live in this ambivalence, not quite sure, not quite confronting, but not quite denying it either. But if you ask them whether the increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a problem, they say yes. They don’t want to live in an unequal society.’

He contends that this is the more difficult issue for many: what to do with a system that evidently benefits some and not all. It would seem that part of the disapproval directed towards the poor can be traced to the question of how much responsibility poor people ought bear for this inequality.

‘People will give five dollars to the Salvos,’ says Peel, ‘but they’re not sure how tax money as a kind of collective pool might be used to better assist people in poverty. They’re worried about people defrauding it. They think that poor people need to be helped, but we can’t trust them.’

It’s part of what he calls a ‘story problem’, a dearth not only of stories that would induce compassion, but of invitations to imagine the lives of those who are impoverished. ‘The truly evil work of demonising the poor succeeds only as far as people can accept that they are different,’ Peel says. ‘We have to counter the argument that they are damaged in some way, that they don’t have lives and hopes just like the rest of us.’

However, he cautions against haranguing as a means of countering negative attitudes towards the poor. ‘I think it’s best not to yell,’ he says. ‘One of the most effective things we can say about poverty is to stress vulnerability, to get people to think about how easily the best laid plans can come unstuck, and say, it could happen to any of us.’

It is a process that should lead people to realise that generosity is not unreasonable. ‘It’s stopping thinking about what I’m getting out of it,’ says Peel. ‘What you get out of it is living in the kind of place where if you fall down, someone will come and pick you up. That your taxes are an investment in a kind society that will treat you kindly should the need arise. It’s about ideal systems, not about what we can’t afford.’

For Fox, the challenge of re-imagining the poor means emphasising language. This is why his team regards the future as the context for asking questions about poverty. While he concedes there is a risk that the Hume City Council enquiry might amount to little more than tokenism, he hopes that will enforce the message that people who live in poverty have legitimate capabilities and a wealth of experience from which government can learn.

‘Even if all we do in this is say that these people are able, these people have insights, we treat them with respect,’ he muses, ‘that’s saying that their identity is much richer than the poverty they

Fatima Measham is a freelance writer.



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