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How did the attempt to abolish poverty become a war against the poor?

By John Tomlinson - posted Tuesday, 11 June 2013


In this article I shall try to answer the question implicit in the title. In order to do this adequately I shall cast a fairly wide net attempting to explain how various features of Western society are a part of the answer. In the final section of the article I shall suggest a method by way of which, if adopted, we could build a more socially just and economically productive Australia.

The worldwide economic depression subjected about a third of the people of the developed world to an impoverished existence for most of the decade prior to the outbreak of World War II. After the second world war a serious attempt was made in Britain and Australia to expand the welfare state significantly. In 1964, the United States President Lyndon Johnston declared a "war on poverty". In Australia, in 1972, following the election of the first Labor government in 23 years, the Poverty Inquiry was substantially expanded. By the mid-1970s, it appeared reasonably likely that a guaranteed minimum income would be introduced because the Whitlam Labor Government had increased the scope and generosity of the social security system. Eligibility for social security had changed in emphasis from forcing people to establish an entitlement for a payment to trying to ensure that everyone experiencing financial hardship received their full entitlement. In Canada and the United States governments attempted to introduce generalised income guarantees for the less well off in the 1960s and 70s.


Since the mid-1980s welfare has been cut back in Europe, North America and in Australia and New Zealand. Throughout the 1980s and 90s many critics of US welfare policies attempted to force cutbacks, they particularly targeted monies paid to lone mothers. In 1996, an ideological shift reducing federal aid to impoverished people over the previous decade, culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which, as claimed by President Bill Clinton, "end[ed] welfare as we know it."(Wikipedia [b] 2013). The European social insurance provisions came under attack long before the recent global recession sometimes referred to as the Global Financial Crisis.

In the late1980s Friends of the ABC held a meeting to discuss funding cutbacks in the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Canberra. I became the most unpopular bloke in the room when I suggested that ABC journalists had brought the problem on themselves by substantially increasing the time that was devoted to economics, especially the widespread use of the term "rational economics" when referring to neoliberal economic policies, the concentration put into trade weighted indices, the stock market, commodity prices, the value of the Australian dollar and the value of products whilst increasingly neglecting social values.

George Monbiot writing in The Guardian on the 14th January 2013 noted that

"In 2012, the world's 100 richest people became $241billion richer. They are now worth…just a little less than the entire output of the United Kingdom." He suggested that the policies leading to this result included reductions in the tax rates paid by high income earners, failing to pursue tax payments from the rich, "government's refusal to recoup a decent share of revenues from minerals and the land; the privatisation of public assets and the creation of a toll-booth economy,…and the destruction of collective bargaining."

"The Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank, calculates that chief executives at America's 350 biggest companies were paid 231 times as much as the average private-sector worker in 2011" (JS.2012). This same think tank calculated that in the year 2000 these executives or their equivalents had been paid in the order of 400 times average private-sector workers: whereas in 1975 this ratio was only 20 times the average workers salary. At Walmart the ratio between the pay of the CEO and the median workers pay is over 1,000 to one. "The average total remuneration of a chief executive of a top 50 company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2010 is $6.4 million – or almost 100 times that of the average worker" and it needs to be remembered that two-thirds of Australian workers receive less than the average wage. The CEOs of Sweden's 50 largest companies earn on average 40 times more than an industrial worker, a finding that a union organisation head believes is 'totally unacceptable' and requires a 'popular uprising' to remedy".

In September 2001, following what the Americans are wont to call "9/11" the United States launched the War on Terror. Millions of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere in Africa and Asia have lost their lives in, or fleeing from, this never-ending killing spree. The CIA disappeared and tortured thousands in a worldwide program of rendition and secret prisons. There are still 166 prisoners being held in legal limbo at Guantanamo and as I write 100 of them are on a hunger strike. There are daily drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. These are targeted assassinations of what are meant to be "Islamist rebel leaders" but swept up in what the US militarists are apt to call "collateral damage" are women, children and wedding parties. The role of the military arm of the US government going round the world meeting lots of nice people then subjecting them to rendition, torture, or death, dehumanises those Western citizens who don't vocally oppose such illegal actions. The "War on Terror" inexorably changed from the pursuit of Al Queida to a war of terror against much of the Middle East and beyond. George W. Bush's simplistic dichotomy "You are either with us or against us" led many US allies (such as Australia) to adopt grotesque Kafkaesque terrorism laws. Such processes turn thinking adults into silent witnesses of State violence in fear of becoming enveloped in the witch-hunt that follows the expression of dissent.



The war on drugs began in the United States in 1914 with the Federal government outlawing heroin. Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century US governments thought that drug addiction could be cured by treatment but in 1951 legislation was passed providing for minimum mandatory sentences for possession of some drugs. This approach was eagerly adopted by the Eisenhower administration in 1952. "The addition of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the federal law enforcement apparatus in 1973 was a significant step in the direction of a criminal justice approach to drug enforcement"(Head 2013). Since that time the US has invaded Panama and other Central and South American countries, arming Contras and other paramilitary groups to fight leftists and "drug runners". It has filled its own prisons with people convicted of various "crimes" involving drugs. In doing so it has condemned many of its own citizens to a custodial system that blights their lives. When countries like Australia want to adopt harm minimisation polices such as heroin trials, drug injecting rooms or clean needle exchanges the US comes calling. This increases the difficulties of developing sensible humane drug policies and consequently alienates another generation of young people and older people with addictions to "illegal" drugs.

Monbiot, in the article referred to earlier, notes that the 2012 "annual report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development should have been the obituary for the neoliberal model developed by Hayek and Friedman and their disciples". Monbiot asserts that this report "shows unequivocally that their policies have created the opposite outcomes to those they predicted. As neoliberal policies (cutting taxes for the rich, privatising state assets, deregulating labour, reducing social security) began to bite from the 1980s onwards, growth rates started to fall and unemployment to rise".

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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