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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Why I Love Sociology

I don’t make new friends very often, which is sad… but that is a subject for another post at another time. So, when I do meet new people, it’s kind of a big deal for me. Recently I met someone new and we got to talking. Among other things, he challenged me a few times to justify what it was that I found so compelling about the discipline of sociology. I declare my love for it often and loudly, but when I tried to explain to him the basis of this love, I seemed to come up short. Perhaps this was because I was inebriated at the time; perhaps it was because I seem to steadily be losing my ability to accurately express myself. Regardless, it has been bothering me for some time now, and I think I’ve come up with an answer that I’m happy with.

An acquaintance of mine once said that she joined the ALP because she simply couldn’t bring herself to believe that ‘poor people are poor because they just haven’t worked hard enough.’ Forget about the political affiliations and the debates we could be having about that statement: the truth is that this is exactly why I like sociology. I refuse to believe that we are a product only of our ‘choices’. We are shaped as human beings by external factors, to a huge extent by the society and the culture in which we live. I love people, I find them fascinating, and I love trying to figure out why they are the way they are.

Each of us is shaped by the choices that we make in life. But the choices that we are given – the opportunities that we have access to – are shaped by much larger forces. I was born into a middle-class family with loving, supportive parents; I have had numerous and wonderful opportunities provided to me, not least access to a very high standard of education.

The level playing field is a myth: even before we are born, we have differing chances in life. The location of our birth and the socio-economic status of our parents are some of the most determinative factors in our lives. Children who fall behind in health status or educational development in the first six years of their lives are unlikely to ever catch up. Having parents who work long hours or are otherwise unable to help with learning, having parents who are drug addicts, having parents who are unable to afford adequate healthcare, having parents who can only afford to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is never the fault of the child. But it will significantly affect the opportunities that are available to them throughout their life, and it will affect the choices that they make.

I could probably use sociology to explain why it is that I wear the clothes that I wear, or read the books I read, or like the TV shows that I like, but I won’t. Suffice to say here that people are not simply a product of their personal choices. Society may be an abstract concept, but it is an important one. By understanding the ways that society affects individuals, we can start to change the structural barriers that exist to prevent everyone having the same opportunities to live their lives that I and my friends have had. Knowing what we’re up against in terms of disadvantage and discrimination is the first step to overcoming it.

She’s not perfect, but I’m still proud of our Prime Minister

After her incredible Question Time speech in Parliament on October 9th – the news and YouTube video of which have apparently gone viral – Prime Minister Gillard is receiving, well, even more attention than usual. Many people, men and women alike, are praising the Prime Minister’s courage, as well as her oratory skills, in calling out Tony Abbott and others on ridiculous statements they have made in the past.

It’s true that those whose watched the entirety of the day unfold, and not just the Prime Minister’s speech, have a somewhat different (and more cynical) view of the whole affair. But nothing even comes close to the bile that Peter Hartcher today expressed in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I beg you, please read the whole article, but just in case you’re lazy (like me) I’m going to extract a few key quotes.

“If there was one thing that should have been different about Gillard’s prime ministership, it should have been that Australia’s first female prime minister should have been a flag bearer for women.”

In the next paragraph he goes on to say: “She started on her long trajectory of electoral disillusionment when, bit by bit, she revealed herself to be just another politician.”

And then: “If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed.”

I have three points to make here.
1. Hartcher seems to be implying that Julia Gillard should have been a certain kind – a different kind – of prime minister simply by virtue of her gender. I would argue that every politician is ‘just another politician’. Prime Minister Gillard doesn’t have an obligation to act any certain way simply because she is a woman. Yes, it is inspiring to know that we as a country and a society have advanced enough that we can elect  a woman to our highest office. But Julia Gillard is a human being just like any other, and she is constrained by the workings of her party and the wider political arena just like any other prime minister would be. Much like those who label women ‘shrill’, ‘hysterical’ and ‘aggressive’ when they act just like men, Hartcher seems to be implying that by virtue of her gender Ms Gillard ought to somehow be better, more principled, less jaded than the men who have preceded her. I was alive for less than two months of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of Britain, but I’m sure if anyone told her she should have ruled the country differently because she was a woman she would have had a cow.

2. Julia Gillard is a flag-bearer for women. Did you somehow miss her entire speech? Fifteen solid minutes of calling out the sexist, misogynist pigs that Ms Gillard and every other woman in the country has to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to tell me that my prime minister is somehow not sticking up for my rights the day after this speech really just makes me think you’re an imbecile.

3. Ms Gillard wasn’t defending Peter Slipper. In fact, she quite explicitly called out Tony Abbott for his continuing close friendship with Mr Slipper, which all went down the drain – probably for political point-scoring – when this whole text messaging scandal emerged. The Prime Minister, in no uncertain terms, condemned Mr Slipper’s actions in sending those text messages.

I’ll leave you with this delighful snapshot of another wonderful human being – a commenter on Hartcher’s article – who seems to think that femaleness is a reason to be a whole different kind of Prime Minister.

The only other thing I have to say right now is go and read this article because it is utterly fantastic, more comprehensive and eloquent than anything I could ever manage.

  • 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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