By Dr John Falzon
I was born”, he told me, “in S_____”, a suburb notorious for its run-down houses and kids running wild. “The taxi drivers called it a no-go zone and the bus routes passed us by.”
This man rang me out of the blue because he felt that Vinnies was taking a strong stand for the people who seem to be born into brokenness.
“I’ve had heaps of help from you people,” he said. “It’s good that you’re sticking up for us.” He continued: “Dad worked hard until he got crook and then he couldn’t really hold a job down any more.”
“Do you mind if I ask you what was he crook with, mate?” I enquired.
“He went mental, mate. That’s what he was crook with. Mum used to take us to see him in the institution on the weekends. I don’t know what went wrong. He was a good man but he just got eaten away with this thing and there was nothing we could do about it. Mum worked hard to keep us fed and clothed but that didn’t stop us from getting into strife.
“When I left home and started trying to survive on my own two feet I realised how tough it was. Mum had a Housing Commission place but the only place I could get was a private rental.
“I made a few bad decisions. The worst was to take my uncle’s advice on how to rort the finance companies. You see, my credit rating was shot and I needed to buy another car to get me to work since the engine in my old one died. That’s how I ended up doing time in prison for fraud.”
Who is to blame when a child is born on the margins and stays on the margins? Families who live on the edge are always an easy target. They are easy to blame. But those who blame them are blinding themselves to the real causes of exclusion.
The term “intergenerational poverty” refers to the poverty that appears to pass from one generation to the next. The noted Australian economist, Fred Argy, reported the following about intergenerational poverty: “In nearly all countries studied, the occupational and education status of adults is strongly and positively correlated with that of their parents – i.e. children from low socio-economic backgrounds have much less chance of achieving management or professional positions over their lifetime than those with well-off parents… Economically successful parents are able to spend more on goods and services (such as education and health) which enhance their children’s labour market prospects, and have superior location and social networks.”
Intergenerational poverty is, for some, a coded way of saying that poverty is passed on, like a disease, from parent to child. This idea is a means of demonising people for their experience of exclusion.
When we start thinking about poverty as being something that is passed on (almost genetically!) then it leads us down the slippery slope of either pathologising or criminalising the people on the edge.
To pathologise is to think of poverty as their sickness. To criminalise is to think of it as their fault. Either way, there is a mistaken emphasis. Either way, the focus is on what’s supposedly wrong with the individual rather than the things that are wrong with the kind of society that excludes entire groups of people, including children.
Yes, all of us make mistakes and make bad decisions but these decisions and mistakes are not made on a level playing field. It is the field itself that we need to look at more closely. Some commentators argue that we are heading down a so-called American path. Fred Argy puts in this way: “Australia has a much more egalitarian history than the US – but our social values have been steadily converging and this “Americanisation” is likely to continue as a result of recent and prospective industrial relations reforms and growing inequalities of access to education, health, housing and employment. It is possible therefore that Australia will be following the US down the road of diminishing (or at best stable) equality of opportunity. Even those Australians who refuse to worry about relative poverty and inequality may find this prospect discomforting.”
This is never simply a matter of how much money is in people’s pockets. It’s also, and especially about, their access to health care, education at all levels, housing, childcare, transport and fair employment.
As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1998:32) noted: “In California, one of the richest states of the US… since 1994 the prison budget has been greater than the budget of the all the universities together. The blacks in the Chicago ghetto only know the state through the police officer, the judge, the prison warder and the parole officer.”
In Australia we have seen a 25 per cent increase in the number of people incarcerated over the past 10 years. Every day, according to the Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations, one in every 200 Australians experiences homelessness. More than 160,000 Australians experience homelessness each year. One in every three homeless Australians is a child. Two out of every three children who need support from homelessness services are turned away. Are we seeing evidence of the same trajectory?
Latest Treasury figures show that Australia’s private sector wealth has increased by 15 per cent. As Professor Bob Gregory from the ANU pointed out, however, “the distributions of wealth have become more uneven in the society at large.” There has been a real increase in wealth for those with shares or property but those with neither have been excluded from the increase in prosperity.
As for the children of these excluded families the story continues to be one of injustice. Australia has a child poverty rate of 14.7 per cent. This is nowhere near as bad as the USA with its massive child poverty rate of 21.9 per cent. Neither, however, is it anywhere near as good as Denmark’s rate of 2.4 per cent. Furthermore, our rate of child poverty has marginally increased over the last decade.
Rather than blaming the poor for their poverty it is far more productive to look at the reasons for social exclusion. According to the British Social Exclusion Unit established by the Blair government in 1997: “Social exclusion happens when people or places suffer from a series of problems such as unemployment, discrimination, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, ill health and family breakdown. When such problems combine they can create a vicious cycle. Social exclusion can happen as a result of problems that face one person in their life. But it can also start from birth. Being born into poverty or to parents with low skills still has a major influence on future life chances”.
To some, these observations seem to be stating the obvious. To others who continue to demonise the excluded there is a stubborn refusal to accept the facts behind the social causes of exclusion.
People are coming up with common answers to fundamental questions: What is it that excludes me? What is it that marginalises me? What is it that makes me feel less than human? And those of us who stand in solidarity with them are joining our voices in the enunciation of these common answers. Despite the fact that we are called all sorts of names for doing so!
We trust the truth of those who are presenting themselves to us, not simply requesting assistance but also entrusting to us their stories of having been denied dignity, of having opportunities snatched away from them and from their children. We share with them, not a stubborn refusal of the facts, but the persistent refusal to give up hope.
Dr John Falzon is the Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s National Council.
This article was taken from the TheRecord _Autumn2007.
Dr John Falzon will sleep out on June 21 to raise awareness for homelessness in Australia. Click here to find out more how you can support the 2012 Ceo Sleepout.