What if poverty is a choice?

And what if we decided that it is unacceptable?

Kristy Muir

Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

20 October 2017

One in six children under the age of 15 live below the poverty line in Australia. Society can choose to do something about it, Kristy Muir writes.

It is national anti-poverty week in Australia, so it’s a good time to ask a pertinent question: what if poverty is a choice? Not of an individual experiencing poverty, but of society.

Picture a baby being born – your child, your niece, nephew, grandchild, or the baby of a family friend. Think about the joy and your hopes for that little baby and their future – where they’ll belong, what they’ll achieve, contribute to or become. No one imagines a future that isn’t full of hope and aspirations.

But what if the postcode in which that baby was born or the misfortunes she/he or their parents face throughout life – a lost job, a physical or mental illness, an accident, an inability to cover the costs of housing, a violent relationship – changes the opportunities they have in life. What if this leaves them growing up in poverty?

Living below the poverty line is a reality for one in six children under the age of 15 in Australia (e.g. ACOSS facts on poverty) and the statistics aren’t better across other rich countries around the world. UNICEF recently reported that on average one in five children 0-17 years are living in poverty and the statistics are worse in countries like the USA. It’s worth reflecting on and calling out these statistics and what they mean for people’s lives, how we perceive and talk about it and what we do to address it. That brings me to my core question: What if poverty is a choice?

More on this: Australia's poverty of ambition

In recent times, poverty has often been portrayed and perceived as an individual failure and an individual responsibility. People experiencing poverty have been seen, for example, as “deserving and undeserving” or as “lifters and leaners”. It’s something we’re seeing now in play out in policies, politics and parliament (e.g. in Australia parliament is debating the 2017 Welfare Reform Bill).

This is not new. Language, policies and actions around the “deserving and undeserving poor” has a very long history which many historians, sociologists and social policy scholars have written about (here are just three examples: the US’s Michael Katz who wrote the Underserving Poor, the UK’s Ruth Lister, and Australia’s Mark Peel). Peel’s 2003 book, The Lowest Rung, made its mark on me. He traced the recent history of poverty in Australia and how it’s perceived and lived. Peel explained how society started to see poverty as the failure of an individual, rather than a result of the structures of society within which inequality of opportunity exists and people have different advantages/ disadvantages as starting points and throughout life.

Think about life as a Choose your own adventure book. We can all make choices. But for children experiencing poverty, the book has different options to choose from than the books owned by children who are better off. The story starts differently and the options available – resources, networks, educational opportunities, jobs, income – are different, which means that opportunities are restricted and there is little likelihood of getting to the same ending in the story. It’s easier in a way to demonise people experiencing poverty for making ‘poor choices’ around which page they turned to or whether they picked up the book in the first place, and to push responsibility back on them to change their choices, attitudes or behaviour. It’s easier because it places accountability onto individuals experiencing poverty and largely abdicates responsibility and accountability for change from the rest of society.

More on this: Extreme poverty exists in Australia, but is rarely measured

What if poverty is a choice? Not an individual’s choice, but society’s choice. What if it was unacceptable in a society to have a baby born tomorrow and to be able to predict by its postcode whether it is going to grow up living in poverty? What if we had a society where, if something went wrong and your parent got sick, had or developed a disability, lost their job, lost their home, and couldn’t afford housing, we didn’t accept that it meant kids went hungry, couldn’t replace their school shoes, missed out on school excursions, didn’t have friends over, go cold in the winter, swelter in the summer, go to bed early to save on the costs of electricity, or bathe every second night to save on water bills? What if it didn’t mean that these children started and ended behind in education and employment?

What if we decided that poverty is unacceptable?

This is a choice we could make as a society. A choice that would involve, among other things, tackling structural inequality; creating equal opportunities for safe, stable affordable housing, educational participation and attainment, and positive employment outcomes; and for adequate safety nets. Yes, it’s a complex problem and complex problems require systematic solutions. But systems have lots of different agents with different roles.

I’m lucky enough to be leading the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) in Australia. Our role is to help enable others to achieve positive social change. We work with partners across sectors, undertake research that brings together knowledge to understand current social challenges and opportunities for positive change, and deliver education programs that develop social impact leaders (including offering scholarships to help break down barriers to accessing education). Our vision is for a world where people have the opportunity to achieve their goals free from discrimination and social inequality. CSI is just one organisation amongst many who are working to reduce social inequality.

Beyond an organisational level, it’s important to remember that the role individuals choose to play is also critical: what we give, where we give, who we challenge, what we do with our time, the opportunities we create and for who, what we accept and what we don’t accept. As Peel reminds us: “People’s power to make choices and to refuse the logic of inevitable futures is history’s richest lesson.”

So, as we look ahead and can predict the surety of poverty with as little as a postcode, it is worth asking, what choices can you make now and in the future?

This piece was first published by Kristy Muir on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-poverty-choice-kristy-muir/

For more information on CSI’s scholarships program, click here. To enquire about how to support a scholarship, please get in touch with the Centre for Social Impact.

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