So where have all the dole bludgers gone? Growing up in an affluent part of Sydney, where unemployment rates were low and incomes high, the standard orthodoxy was that the ranks of the unemployed were filled with people who didn’t want to work and were living the life of Riley on unemployment benefits. How we resented them, these “dole bludgers”, wantonly living off our taxes while we were hard at work.
The 2012 poverty report by the Australian Council of Social Services, updated earlier this year, puts this myth to bed.
In Australia poverty is usually measured in terms of inequality. A person is considered to live in poverty if their income is less than 50% of the median income for their household type. When income is this low you simply don’t have the opportunities that most of us would consider the minimum required to live a decent life. For example, the report describes the situation of an elderly pensioner:
Mary is a 78 year old pensioner who lives in Perth. Due to the cost of high rent and utility prices life has become a battle for survival. During winter Mary would turn her heating on for only one hour a day. She would spend much of the day in bed to keep warm. Her food budget each week is $40. This means a diet of baked beans, bread, and a small amount of fruit, and vegetables. Once a month she buys a small piece of chicken. Once a week she eats a hot meal provided at a local church.Mary considers herself lucky as at least she has a roof over her head.
According to the report 2,265,000 live below the poverty line and find themselves in circumstances like Mary. And the single biggest driver is that social welfare payments are set lower than the poverty line. The maximum receivable age pension for a single person, at $366 per week, is $22 per week below the poverty line for a single aged person.
So what about those dole bludgers? It seems they might not be living the high life after all. The chart blow shows the weekly gap between maximum Newstart payments and the poverty line:
The stark reality is captured by John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, in a preface to the report:
The truth told by those on the margins is louder than the lies told about them.
Our problem in Australia is not the “idleness of the poor.” Our problem is inequality. This is a social question, not a question of behaviour. We do irreparable harm when we turn it into a question of individual behaviour, blaming people for their own poverty. It is a matter of deep shame for a wealthy nation like ours that our unemployment benefits, for example, have been kept deliberately low as a means of humiliating the very people they were originally designed to assist.
Charities like the St Vincent de Paul Society will always be there for the people who are waging a daily battle from below the poverty line, but the message we are hearing is that people do not want charity. They want justice. And we support them in this struggle for their rights.
We support helping people into the paid workforce. The time has come, however, to abandon the foolish notion that forcing them into deeper poverty improves their chances of employment. You don’t build people up by putting them down. You don’t help them get work by forcing them into poverty.
We stand with all who are trying to create a good society; a society that does not accept the scourge of rising inequality and exclusion from the essentials of life; a society that does not humiliate people. New passions are springing up. They point to glaring contradictions. They also offer the promise that another kind of society is possible, and can be created collectively under the guiding stars of struggle and hope.