OPINION: by Claire LindorffNews Weekly
How I would tackle poverty
, November 6, 2004
In England, during the 1930s Depression years, a great campaigner for a more equal distribution of the goods of this world was G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton once said that often the rich gather together and ask each other, "What should we do with the poor?" He said that if we lived in a real democracy, since there are more poor than rich, it would be the poor who would gather together and ask each other, "What should we do with the rich?"
In addressing the problem of poverty and inequality, one needs to do one's best not to assume a superior and undemocratic attitude towards the unemployed, or underemployed, or those who are very thoroughly employed, but not getting enough money for their work, certainly not a "living allowance".
So the first step in addressing poverty needs to be to throw out our presumptuous preconceptions about those who have a lesser share of the world's goods and opportunities.
We need to learn from the experts in poverty - the poor themselves.Experience
In my short experience as a teacher, I have taught children in Ballarat who have come to school each day without food and adequate clothing.
One child who frequently came to school without lunch would tell me she was fasting so that she could know how it feels to live like children in Third World countries. I soon learnt that her sympathy was in fact empathy.
Through my work with the St Vincent de Paul Society, I have spent time in the homes of Ballarat families who are suffering from poverty and inequality. What strikes me most is that these are typical families struggling to make ends meet.Essential costs
From my encounter with these families, I have learnt that financial poverty starts when the family purse is all but emptied by the essential costs of accommodation, food, clothing, hygiene, household utilities and transport.
It turns to hardship when the washing-machine, the fridge or the family car breaks down and there is no ready money for repairs.
It leads to deprivation when family outings, frugal home comforts and the better meals are done without, and the children's social, educational and sporting opportunities have to be put on hold.
And it becomes entrenched when governments neglect to correct continuing injustices that allow the rich to get richer at the expense of debt-ridden families who barely survive.
The big issues causing poverty and inequality are unemployment and an inadequate living allowance.
In recent years, social welfare has increased, Australia's debt has increased, under-employment has increased, while Australia's manufacturing and agricultural sectors have declined.
Almost 30 per cent of Australian men aged 25 to 44 are without full-time employment. This is because of National Competition Policy, which is behind the deregulation of Australian industries, which in turn is killing small business and family farms.
To reverse this disastrous trend, we need industry policies. In an affluent country like Australia, there is no need for poverty and inequality.
I would propose a universal living allowance, which would guarantee a fairer financial deal for families and the single disadvantaged.
A universal living allowance is a negative income tax - a tax in reverse.
Everyone with an income below a given minimum threshold would receive, rather than pay, taxes up to the level of the threshold.
Married couples and families would enjoy higher thresholds than single taxpayers with no dependants.Basic income
The amount set as the threshold would be adequate to cover essential per capita living costs and eliminate the need for welfare as is exists today.
This would ensure a basic income for the jobless and the low-paid, and hence help combat poverty and inequality.
I would also like to see increased availability of rent-affordable public housing.
Community centres should be funded to provide short courses on the basics of living.
Regional rates should not be higher than city rates, and local charities ought to be funded and supported.
I have seen first hand the poverty and inequality that exist in Ballarat and district, and it fills me with sadness that so many of my neighbours should live in this way.
- Claire Lindorff, a schoolteacher from Ballarat, Victoria, stood as a Democratic Labor Party candidate in the recent Federal Election. This article is based on a speech she delivered on September 30 to a forum on poverty, held at the Ballarat Anglican Hall.