19 September, 2008

The pathetic poor

“Men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping” Job 12:5

I am currently reviewing a century of Australian Social Policy and have noticed somewhat of a trend that runs consistently throughout the decades. It’s a trend of punishment and austerity. It seems in our history there has always been an ethic of making the poor pay for their ineptitude, a payment that would be paid in humility since they clearly had no cash. And those that chose to dispense relief were (and to an extent still are) not seen as particularly helpful as they were ‘discountenancing neither mendacity nor vagrancy’, nor was their help encouraging industrious habits or a proper spirit of independence among the recipients.’ (Dickey).

Let’s think about that for a minute. Would The Salvation Army win a government contract if it merely dispensed relief and care? Or does it need to be engaged in some form of reformation? Why, of course we would be expected to engage in reformation! We want to free people from their poverty not just keep them alive a little longer. The problem is, I’m not sure we are producing transformation. It may be our intention, but I am not sure of our success rate. I am not cutting up the Army, I’m cutting up the wider system and moral code of the population.

You see we are dealing with structured poverty ad inequality. I can teach a child to read, I can teach them to be polite, I can teach them to desire wealth and independence, I can teach them how to look for work. But unless someone with power employs them, they will stay poor. Unless they are able to accrue enough capital to secure a loan, they will be unable to buy property. Without employment and land, you are unlikely to make it or be seen to make it out of the unfortunate position of a pauper.

We are also dealing with a public that shows contempt for the misfortune of others and, just like the friends of Job, are convinced that hardship is the fault of the sufferer. Sometimes it is, but often it is not. Why else would we so readily accept initiatives like parent fines for student truancy, breaching for Centrelink non-compliance, or even ‘work for the dole’, which at times could be very helpful for building skills but which left most assuming that regardless of tangible assistance, it just made good moral sense to make them earn their crust. Of course other money we get from the government…tax rebates, baby bonuses, aged care pensions, family benefits, Medicare rebates…well that’s free crust, and they are all justified! No, no – it’s only those who produce nothing for society that must be taught a lesson. Agree? Most do. The thing is, there are many that don’t work and take money and resources from the government, and we don’t have any problem with them at all. Mothers are a perfect example. It is totally justified, and indeed encouraged for a mother to stay home and raise her children…unless she’s a single mother, in which case she MUST work! But I am suggesting that a whole lot of public money goes into stay at home mums that we would never question.

What is our obsession with hating the poor? We can’t deny it. History will show that every public service to the poor…including hospitals…was a momentous battle against the mindset that poor people just don’t deserve free help.

Take some time out to examine your position. Do you help the poor because you feel sorry for them? That’s a little condescending. Do you help the poor out of moral duty? That mostly leads to contempt. Or do you recognize that we have created a system that runs more smoothly when only the flexible and capable are involved. Those with issues only slow things down and reduce profit so we exclude them for our own good, all the while chastising them for their lack of involvement. Oh, it has got to stop!

Gen

2 comments:

Ness said...

this is an amazing blog... Good work. Lots to chew over.

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