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Stats and stones: Vinnies’ report from the trenches on the poverty wars

By John Falzon - posted Thursday, 7 July 2005

Toronto 1984. Pope John Paul II sums up his social teaching as follows:

“The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich, the rights of workers over the maximization of profits …”

When the St Vincent de Paul Society was founded, in Paris in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam, a university student, it was in response to the needs of the poor. In 1848 he wrote, "I ask ... that we should take responsibility for the people who have too many needs and not enough rights …”


Twelve years before the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Ozanam was deploring the increasing gap at the heart of society. “The question agitating the world today is … a social question. It is the struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much, it is a clash between wealth and poverty, which is shaking the ground at our feet.”

In May this year we released an Issues Paper (pdf file 232KB), The Reality of Income Inequality in Australia. We reported ABS findings that income inequality was widening significantly. The Centre for Independent Studies decided (pdf file 303KB) that this could not be. Unable, however, to question the ABS data on income inequality, they opted for the tactic of calling us names (such as “1970s student bed-sit revolutionaries”).

Despite the astonishing claim by a columnist in The Australian (June 18, 2005) that we are “out of touch with poverty” our 40,000 members visited 1.8 million Australians last year and provided financial assistance to the tune of $30.8 million. As we visited these households our members consistently noted that people were slipping away from the rest of society. We are not only talking here of people in receipt of income support as their sole form of income, but also families whose members are engaged in work at the lower end of the highly casualised labour market.

There are also, of course, the thousands of Australians who are assisted in our various establishments and special works. Interestingly, many of these people are actively omitted from the data presented by the CIS. It is no wonder that the CIS claims that income inequality is unimportant as a social issue. These people do not exist for the CIS.

We were accused in The Australian of being unfaithful to the Church’s teachings on social justice.

In addition to the aforementioned words of Pope John Paul II, however, we find the following:


… there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Centesimus annus 1991

Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967) similarly noted:

God intended the earth and everything in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should flow fairly to all. All other rights, whatever they may be, including the rights of property and free trade, are to be subordinated to this principle ... Redirecting these rights back to their original purpose must be regarded as an important and urgent social duty.

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This is a shortened version of a paper that appears on St Vincent de Paul Society's website.

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About the Author

Dr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Australia St Vincent de Paul Society.

Other articles by this Author

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On Line Opinion - The CIS should take a BEX and have a good lie down

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