I like to think of Australians as a generous people, the sort of people who help out those in need. When bushfires hit we seem eager to give to those who have lost their homes. Every summer the Sydney cricket test turns pink on Jane McGrath day as money is raised for cancer nurses. When schoolkids accost us with boxes of fundraising chocolates we always buy some.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that we’re generous, because we’re very well off. After allowing for inflation the average Australian in 2010 was consuming three times as much as the average Australian of fifty years earlier. We have rapidly become the second most developed nation in the world according to the UN Human Development Index. As Aussies we have the heart for generosity and the means.
The only problem is it’s not true. The reality is we’re extraordinarily stingy with our money. A 2009-10 survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the average amount given to charities was a meagre $4.26 per household per week. At the same time we average $150 per household per week on recreation and holidaying. The truth is that we’ve grown fabulously rich yet we donate a lousy $4.26 per household per week to helping those in need.
The statistic is so awful I don’t want to believe it. But it’s true.
How can this be? Perhaps a large part of the explanation is found in a 2002 newspoll that showed 62% of us don’t think we can afford everything we need. We have ceased defining need in terms of what is sufficient to live decently and have started defining it in terms of satisfying our aspirations. We define the good life as gaining more, of having what everyone else has, and see that to live the good life on these terms we ‘need’ more than we have.
We used to have a word for this: greed. In a world of desperate need we’re a bunch of greedy bastards.