Poverty is structural

There's a saying in the outback, when it's very cold it's a two-dog night. This particular Saturday afternoon in Canberra, on the wrong side of spring, it was a two-beanie day.

People were rugged up as they filed into Tuckerbox at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Hackett to purchase heavily discounted groceries. Tuckerbox is a weekly volunteer-run food outlet designed to assist people struggling with their weekly budgets.

It's food that can't be sold commercially due to bad labelling, incorrectly listed weights or fast-approaching use-by dates. Foodbank NSW and ACT collects it from manufacturers and retailers and Tuckerbox "sells" it for a small fee. Reciprocity is important. Customers like it. They are not getting a hand-out.

Tuckerbox is a sign of just how tough things have become for many people in Australia's richest city. It is one of several food banks in our suburbs and surrounds. Last month Anglicare opened Food Fair in Queanbeyan.

Faith communities see them as an extension of the Eucharist. They feed people, many of whom feel excluded. The project is a statement of solidarity.

But they are not a sustainable solution. They are like blankets for the homeless: useful when it's cold, but not able to get them into affordable housing. The more blankets and food banks we need, the greater the evidence that we are not lifting people out of poverty.

A new global report out this week shows a third of older Australians are living in poverty. In the wake of last week's poor economic data and evidence of declining overall living standards, we ought to be deeply concerned about what we are doing to tackle poverty and income inequality.

The Abbott government isn't keen on tackling it directly. Here is its latest slogan: "Backing Hard-working Australians".

To the extent that it does have a plan for tackling poverty it is built around the philosophy of "help trickling down". It believes that if businesses face less red-tape they are more likely to employ people, and so on. If they employ more people with a disability, then so much the better. But the neat theory hides all sorts of barriers to people actually getting jobs and keeping them.

Treasurer Joe Hockey might have his heart in the right place, but he is disconnected from many people's realities. In his world, poor people "either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases".

They just need to get better jobs. It's easy enough, if that's what they want. Those that remain poor are demonised for apparently not wanting a better job. They lack aspiration. Their communities are full of cultural deficits. Meanwhile, funds for services to help them have been cut. Not-for-profit organisations have been put through a tumbler, losing grants and expertise.

In his new book The Politics of Luck, Canberra politician Andrew Leigh reminds us of the importance of random events. Bad luck is extraordinarily powerful. It can change the course of many lives in an instant. Bad luck – those shifts of fate that can strike any minute – is why we need a safety net.

If our leaders don't recognise it, they end up running self-help movements rather than governments, assuring us that all we need is motivation and implying that poverty is the result of moral failure.

There's a quote doing the rounds on Facebook from Women's Rights News: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire."

The words sit over an image of a woman with a baby slung to her front and lengths of timber many times her weight tied to her back.

A word search of the Treasurer's speeches reveals that he only mentions poverty when he is talking about economic growth or trade liberalisation. It's always poverty overseas.

Compare that with New Zealand's Treasurer, Bill English, who has ensured that his centre-right government genuinely tackles inherited disadvantage. He has insisted that all new government spending (such as it is) relate to "social investment".

Children are his major focus. Understanding that poverty is structural, he has targets to wind back the long-term unemployment of their parents, to reverse the rise in child abuse, and sharply cut the rates of school dropouts and the rates of convicted children re-offending.

Australia doesn't have over-arching targets for reducing poverty. And there are no agreed measures of success or progress. It's convenient. It means people in power are less accountable.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 19, 2015

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