Despite our image of Australia as the land of the fair go, our levels of poverty are slightly higher than OECD averages. The rate fluctuates year to year but has remained close to current levels for at least a decade. The high cost of housing, declining incomes and the low level of social security benefits are key drivers.
Single parents, recent migrants, Australians living alone or outside a major urban area, people emerging from the criminal justice system, those less qualified, and people on social security benefits, such as the elderly, are particularly at risk. Disability has been a persistent marker of disadvantage, linked to limited employment opportunities and transport options.
Above all, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians face poverty levels almost double that experienced by other Australians. As a June 2019 study from the ANU reported: ‘Indigenous citizens are still far from equal participants in Australian society … they are deeply disadvantaged across a vast array of indicators.’
To express poverty in statistics conveys little of the lived reality. A static picture provides no feel for the patterns which play out in Australia.
So, let’s start from a different point: if you are born into one of the poorest households in Australia, what are your chances of breaking out, of achieving a more prosperous life as adults? Can we predict likely outcomes for those young children in distressed households visited by my parents?
Following decades of detailed survey work, we know the answer. It is dispiriting. Studies by the Melbourne Institute confirm that children born into disadvantage struggle to break out of disadvantage in adulthood.
On average, the more years a child spends in poverty, the worse their socio-economic outcomes. Children from poor households are more likely to experience mental and physical health challenges. Many will struggle to complete education or compete in the labour market.
A child from an impoverished background is five times more likely to suffer adult poverty and two and half times more likely to need social housing. A 2016 Productivity Commission report on deep disadvantage identified a similar pattern, with around half those afflicted by poverty trapped in disadvantage for long periods.
As Australians we pride ourselves on being a meritocratic society, but the success of a few can hide the underlying truth: entrenched intergenerational poverty, like the property of the wealthy, is handed down from parent to child. For the poorest in our society, social mobility is highly constrained. Each time the lottery plays, the same results emerge. Most will do well but for more than one in ten Australians a lifetime of economic struggle beckons.
It is easy to look away, to accept the world as we find it.
The early economist Thomas Malthus wrote ‘that from the inevitable laws of our nature some human beings must suffer from want. These are the unhappy persons who, in the great lottery of life, have drawn a blank’.
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What Malthus accepted as an inevitable reality – the unhappy destiny of the child in Omelas – others contest. For how we respond to misfortune in our society speaks to our most profound moral, philosophical and political beliefs. It is a central question of life: what are our obligations to others?
In his 2012 essay ‘Ethics and Poverty’ philosopher Peter Singer argues we have an obligation to assist. If we encounter a child drowning, we should put aside concern for our clothes and shoes and swim to the rescue, because the harm we can avert is so much more important than the cost to ourselves.
Singer expresses this as a simple principle: ‘If it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.’
The caveat about ‘comparable moral importance’ is significant. Our obligation to others is not an absolute moral imperative which overrides all other considerations, but a judgement about consequences. If responding requires us to be unjust to others, or to accept an unreasonable burden, then the calculation shifts. But if the cost is small in comparison to the difference we can make, our responsibility is clear.
This is an edited extract of On Life’s Lottery by Glyn Davis, published by Hachette Australia.
Professor Davis is the Chief Executive of the Paul Ramsay Foundation and the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.