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On poverty

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 13 June 2019

This essay was foreshadowed in a recent essay on Inequality, and it has something of the same problems. For 'poverty' is an over-used word, meaning whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean, which may not be at all what the audience or reader understands by it. As a word, poverty comes to us through French from the Latin paupertas, and we still have 'pauper' in English, where it means someone very poor. Poor in what? In everything, income, health, life expectancy, food, shelter, you name it. Like inequality, poverty is best seen in relative terms. I am poorer than you are, you are poorer than she is, and so on. Or, as a country, Somalia is poorer than Egypt.

In our country, and others like them, at election times, and indeed pretty well all the time, poverty is seen as being somehow wrong in principle, and my political party or yours will end it, or at least reduce it. Why is poverty reduction seen as so important? Because, I think, after a certain point it is felt to be embarrassing for some members of the society to be so poor that they are begging in the streets. We get back to a common subject in these essays: that sense of belonging, of 'us', that is so powerful and so useful in building a maintaining a good society is seriously weakened when some members of the society are so much poorer than others.

So how do we get to be in such a state of affairs? To some degree it has always been like that. Take homelessness, a current form of poverty that is distressing to some people. Sixty years ago and earlier some people couldn't marry because they had no accommodation to go to, or they lived with in-laws in some discomfort. Women in evil marriages stayed in them because they at least had a roof over their heads. Without overdoing it, those situations all seem to me examples of a kind of homelessness. There were no urban beggars then, at least to my memory, while they are not uncommon today. There were, however, swaggies who roamed the countryside, and I remember them. They were poor and homeless. Is all this worse or better than it was in, say, 1949? I don't know, but urban poverty, homelessness and distress are probably more obvious than they were then.


Why, given the great increase in Australian wealth, is there poverty at all? One answer is that the great increase in wealth has not been shared equally. Another is that 'secondary poverty' is widespread and insidious. What is that? Secondary poverty comes when you have enough money but you spend it unwisely, on booze, fags, and other items that don't improve your life in any useful way. We may disagree on what such items are, and there'll be some people who'll argue that it's their money, and what they do with it is their business. As I argued in the earlier essay, nothing much is shared equally, like skills, looks, health and the rest. We by and large get a set of life cards, and the trick is to play them as well as we can, whatever society it is we live in. And again, as I wrote in the earlier essay, attempts to equalize everything so that everyone has the same start in life seem to me doomed to failure from the beginning. We do what we can. We tax people with more money at a higher rate than people with less. There are arguments about those levels, and whether or not they should be changed up or down. Some would like a super tax, and the return of death duties. Some argue that if the rich were to give up half their wealth there would be no poverty at all. How that transfer would be effected simply puzzles me. Who would organise it? How would the poor receive it? How would we avoid secondary poverty, given this new source of income? And what would happen when that half were spent?

Ms Barty won some three million dollars by winning the French Open recently, and good luck to her. Winnings like that should keep her out of poverty for a while at least. Some other tennis players probably lost money competing in that event. Is there anything we should do about it? To what extent should a society try to ensure that there is no poverty at all? I've thought about this a lot over the past decade or so, and my feeling is that a decent try is probably the best you can hope for. Perfection is not for human beings or human societies. There are people in every society who will not do the obvious things that are in their own best interests, like keeping healthy, not eating the wrong stuff, exercising, keeping learning, keeping working, and so on. It seems vain to me to keep finding excuses for them, explanations that are said to lie in social structures, patriarchy, gender inequality and the like. Maybe charitable organisations will have a better grasp on the problem than the State. Maybe an insightful and brilliant friend is the answer, if there is one available.

And of course, to repeat, poverty is relative, though at least conceptually there is something called 'absolute poverty' which implies the complete lack of the means necessary to meet basic personal needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. Unless such people are taken in by others and cared for, they will die, and they do, in some sub-Saharan countries. If we look at our own society, poor Australians today are not as poor as poor Australians were sixty years ago, and poor Australians today are a lot wealthier than poor Somalis.

To what extent should Australia try to reduce world poverty? There are good reasons for doing something. On the face of it, countries that are expanding their wealth and using that wealth sensibly are likely to be less violent internally and less aggressive externally than those which are not. It is important, I think, that our aid in this domain should be simple and village-based. We should try to help those in the villages move up the wealth scale by replacing dung fires with bottled gas, clay pots with stainless-steel bowls, and candles with an expanded electricity grid. That's where progress will come fastest. And of course ensure that the girls are all educated to at least primary school level - high school graduation would be vastly better - because educated girls are much less likely to become baby-making machines.

Poverty is, at least to me, a part of social life, just as is inequality. I don't like some of its characteristics, but I do not think there is any kind of silver bullet solution to it, either. Do your best to avoid it, I cry, and do the same with your family and friends. The most likely facet of it that readers of this site will see is secondary poverty, discussed above. Yet banning cigarettes, booze and McDonald's does not strike me as a sensible way forward, at least as a cure for poverty, though there may be other good reasons for going down these punitive paths. I am reminded of a famous quote, attributed to many different people, among them Sophie Tucker and Billie Holliday: 'I've been rich. I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better!'

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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