We must reshape our priorities & address poverty
Last week ACOSS produced a report on poverty in Australia which shows poverty has increased to 13.9% of the population, with the number of children in poverty even higher. Unemployment benefits in Australia are now the lowest of any OECD country and the gap between the rich and poor income earners is now the highest it has been since the 19th Century.
People living below the poverty line in unequal countries are likely to show up in statistics relating to life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, imprisonment, early school leavers, teenage pregnancy and mental illness. Indeed if inequality reaches a certain level, the economy will suffer (International Monetary Fund).
There have been three significant periods in Australia’s post war history which have had an impact on poverty levels and inequality.
The social contract gave us full employment and a generous family wage; Employers were reasonably happy with this as they benefitted from government policy with protection of their industry by tariffs and subsidies. People on low incomes could work their way out of poverty, few people were on benefits and numbers of homeless people were low. Full employment particularly benefited men and bread winners but this did not include Aboriginal men (50% of whom remained unemployed).
After a recession in 1973 both major parties abandoned the policy of full employment and the welfare state imperatives of education, health and employment were replaced by economic growth at any cost. There were some social justice gains during this period particularly with the success of feminism, the gay rights movement, rights for people with a disability and multiculturalism. Aboriginal people gained control of some Aboriginal health and welfare agencies – an important step towards self-determination.
However long-term unemployment became a feature of Australian life and became multi-generational for some families.
This was an astonishing period of economic growth and affluences as we enhanced the opportunities of globalisation.
Most people have benefitted. We are now healthier, living longer, better educated, better housed than ever before. However over 10% of the population have missed out. The losers have been unskilled workers and their families make up the 13.9% of population living below the poverty line.
Inequality has increased significantly. The top 10% of Australians are multi-millionaires and the lowest 10% of income earners have no wealth at all. This is a global phenomenon where 85 of the world’s richest people have more wealth than 50% of the global population.
Inequality within and between countries is dangerous and can lead to conflict and breakdown in social cohesion. As some stage we as a nation must reshape our priorities or we will all suffer.