“If you focus on poverty, the light is on ‘the poor’; let’s instead shine a light on wealth,” Professor Fran Baum said in the opening session of the recent SACOSS conference on Alternative Futures: Ending Poverty. The conference, supported by The Wyatt Trust, focused on hope and possibility, rather than the fatalism that usually accompanies talk of poverty.
How is that the poorest half of the population owns just 2 per cent of the global wealth, with 76 per cent of wealth in the hands of the richest 10 per cent? In Australia, the wealth share held by the top 1 per cent has been growing almost continuously this century, while the wealth share held by the poorest 50 per cent of Australians has been falling. Similarly, income inequality has been growing.
If this makes you feel weary and despondent, you are in good company. Many of us wonder how and why this is happening when our nation’s identity clings to the notion of a fair go.
The conference discussion centred on the explanation that poverty is the result of policy choices, not personal destiny. However, policy choices are made by governments that we elect, which means that the growing inequality and consequent resentment are our responsibility to fix.
Wyatt’s CEO Stacey Thomas facilitated a panel that examined public attitudes to poverty and the myths that endure despite evidence to the contrary.
Panelist Maiy Azize, who is Deputy Director of Anglicare Australia and has researched public beliefs about poverty, challenged the audience to review the conversations we have and think about how often we repeat the myths in order to refute them. She said we would be much better served by asserting the possible and the evident.
For example, “the unemployed can’t be bothered to move to where the jobs are,” confines the discussion to defending people’s limited choices about family, community and the additional costs of re-locating.
A change in attention to training, further education, regional development, or housing affordability can position the problem firmly within the reach of public policy. It draws attention to the design of the economy which is a set of decisions which can be changed.
This begs the question though of how do we get those policy shifts and, more importantly, how do we get them to stick?
We don’t have to look far for the answer. Medicare, public education, a widely-accessible aged pension, and the recent NDIS are giants in our national landscape, but in their earliest days, they too started out as ideas. They might be complained about, altered, or improved but it would take a foolish government to cancel them. The more universal the reach and benefits are, the more social support there is for sustaining them.
We don’t have to look far for the ideas either.
The conference considered realistic reforms in housing affordability, income support, digital access, and partnerships between government and non-government enterprises with the potential to deliver on equality and opportunity.
Significantly, the conference concluded with a panel discussion on what difference a First Nations Voice to Parliament would make to the national identity, or as one panellist put it, “changing the DNA of this country”.
Hope springs eternal, and action feeds hope.
Pam Simmons, Wyatt Chair