Trying to make sense of privilege and poverty

Recently a friend of mine went on a bit of a diatribe on Facebook about just how good we have it, here in Australia. This particular friend is currently in India; I’m not sure exactly what it is he is doing there but it may have something to do with teaching impoverished children how to read and write. It was sparked by a post he’d seen, directed at Prime Minister Gillard, where a young man complained that he was ineligible for Youth Allowance while studying at University, while “a person that lives their life on drugs and that has no intention of getting a job” is eligible for government assistance. My friend was absolutely scathing about Australians who complain about the ‘difficulties’ of life here or the exorbitant cost of living.

I want to defend those people. No, I don’t think it’s right to complain incessantly about what are, rather crudely, elsewhere called ‘first world problems’. I certainly do think that a large number of people need to pause, look around, and try to appreciate just how good they have it – not just compared with many other people in this world, but in and of itself. But these things aren’t simply caused by wilful ignorance and stupidity: they are actively encouraged by the society in which we live.

There are two kinds of poverty: absolute poverty (also known as extreme poverty), and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is a standard set by the World Bank; it approximately means that you live on a total of less than US$1.50 per day. Relative poverty is like, not being able to afford a computer while everyone else in your neighbourhood has a high-speed internet connection. In Australia, the poverty line has been set at 50% of the average median income.

When you’re more likely to compare yourself to Gina Rinehart than an anonymous Chinese sweat-shop worker, I can understand why you might feel like you’re being ripped off. If Ms Rinehart can become the richest person in the country by inheriting a financial empire – and then have the audacity to claim that ordinary Australians should be willing to work for poverty wages – why can’t I afford to buy a brand new car? The media have a vested interest in keeping us discontented. That is how advertising works: make people feel like they don’t have enough. To get people to buy things, you must keep them believing that they deserve a certain standard of living, and then get them to work towards that standard of living. Next step: profit! Not to mention the fact that the federal opposition continue to tell us about how difficult life is under the carbon tax and skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures. Never mind the fact that the cost of many of the essentials of life has either remained stable or actually decreased over the past decade (compared with the average wage): if the Opposition can convince us all that there is a widespread problem, then maybe they can win the next election by convincing us that they have a solution to that problem.

Yes, it is absolutely, shockingly ignorant to think that middle-class Australians are somehow having a hard time of it. But when our daily lives consist of news stories about super-wealthy people like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, when politicians tell us that we’re having trouble heating our houses through (incredibly mild) winters, or even when we feel a bit jealous over our next-door-neighbours brand new Ford SUV, it can be hard to put this back in perspective. Most of us do not travel to developing countries or view news stories about wars, famines, and natural disasters that afflict the global poor. The problem is that telling people that they’re oh-so-privileged to live the life they lead just isn’t profitable.

There’s an argument that providing welfare breeds a culture of entitlement. I think it’s a valid argument to make, but I also think that even if it is true, providing some kind of welfare is worth it. The problem comes when middle-class recipients of welfare masquerading as tax breaks start to believe that they are more entitled to their Family Tax Benefit than the long-term unemployed are to the money that literally allows them to eat and keep a roof over their head. Claiming that you are entitled to government benefits by virtue of being a university student while simultaneously denying the right of impoverished Australians to try to build a better life makes my head spin. These kind of people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that if you are born into disadvantage, it can be very difficult to find a decent, permanent job or obtain appropriate long-term housing. It’s much easier to advocate for the doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’ when your parents have coddled you all the way to university.

Yes, we live in an incredibly privileged society and yes, we need to stop sometimes and look around and understand how good we have it. But none of us lives in a vacuum; the way that we interact with society influences the way we make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Having a go at someone for acting entitled is valid, but there are larger things to blame than just their own sheltered ignorance.

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2 Comments

  1. Wow, you could literally replace “Australia” with “United States” and have the exact same argument.

    I would say you may have also missed one aspect of the relative poverty. The lifestyle for even poor people in Australia or the US (or probably large swathes of Europe) is designed for ‘middle-class’ living, not poverty living. Our small houses are often several times larger than their large houses, and house far fewer people. Heating costs more for larger spaces, and electricity costs are higher because we rely on electricity for so much of our basic appliances and gadgets. Fewer people living in the space means less income to cover the additional costs. Nothing is designed to be terribly cost-friendly.

    So just the design and function of our houses is already pushing up the cost of living. Add things like the expectation of basic medical care, a general understanding of needing a car to get anywhere (instead of bikes, public transit or just plain walking) and there are more added costs to living.

    It’s hard to live in a society that isn’t designed to be poverty-friendly.

    Reply
  2. Enlightening conversation.
    Design
    Poverty friendly
    personal responsibility…coddled to university

    Allot to think about
    Wondering

    Reply

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  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

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