Current Issue #488

Modern Times: The endless war on poverty

Modern Times: The endless war on poverty

Leaders in the 1960s spoke of eliminating the root causes of poverty, but half a century later that same battle grinds on.

It was protected by a plastic pocket and sat on a shelf. I liked the title, and figured that it must be worth preserving if a photocopied article printed in 1966 remained valuable in 2018, when everything ever written has probably made it to the internet. The price asked by the Port Adelaide markets was $1. Even if the paper was used to light my fireplace next winter, it would hardly be a waste of money. The paper, ‘The Culture of Poverty’, written by Oscar Lewis, instead fuelled a fire that has warmed ongoing reflections on poverty.

The article appeared in Scientific American, two years after the original war on poverty, declared by US President Johnson in his State of the Union address in 1964. It preceded more contemporary wars on drugs, terrorism and waste. The original war – part of Johnson’s vision for a Great Society. “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty,” declared Johnson, “but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Soaring rhetoric and sincere intention. Now, the war on poverty has become an endless war, replete with tension that may escalate at any moment.

More than half-a-century has passed since this war on poverty article first appeared. The description of how classes perceive each other, and perceive their own condition, is as valid today, across an industrialised world that believes itself to be impervious to class and hierarchy, as it was at the time and place of writing. “The dominant class,” wrote Lewis, “asserts a set of values that prizes thrift and the accumulation of wealth and prosperity, stresses the possibility of upward mobility and explains low economic status as the result of individual personal inadequacy and inferiority.”

This is abundantly evident in Australia, where the explanation for homelessness or joblessness is indolence or personal inadequacy. This discursive trap allows the politicisation and vilification of Australians of low economic status, and further reductions in social securities designed to mitigate against poverty’s endemic, relentless and unsympathetic nature. The ‘bludger’ briefly became the ‘leaner’ in 2014, but the sentiment was consistent: the hard-working majority pays to support a group that have fallen into poverty through laze and inactivity.

According to the article, the tendency to focus on the personality of the individual victim of poverty – the ‘bludger’ or the ‘leaner’ in a society of proud ‘lifters’ – overlooks the culture of poverty that is often passed down in families from generation to generation. This culture, according to Lewis, is “clearly patterned and reasonably predictable”. The author was struck by the “inexorable repetitiousness and the iron entrenchment of the lifestyles” of those who inherit the poverty of previous generations.

There are also circumstances that were not passed down within families. Many of our homeless are returning defence force personnel that struggle to reintegrate and carry significant mental health issues. Workers in contracting sectors of the economy may also find themselves unemployed and without requisite knowledge or experience in other trades. Poverty can be the result of circumstance rather than inadequate effort. Few consciously opt for hardship when other opportunities are available. But once immersed in a culture of poverty, it is difficult to escape.

This cycle suggests that poverty is an endless war. In Australia as in the United States, its ongoing nature is entrenched by policy settings. The Newstart allowance encourages anything but a new start; it condemns recipients to a unique focus on survival, rather than upward mobility. Creeping underemployment has led to a sub-culture of working poor: those with jobs but who are unable to live free from unceasing concern about costs of living. The sale of public assets has contributed to steep increases in a range of unavoidable living costs, such as electricity. Part-time or casual work invites poverty when costs of living are out of control.

On a recent trip to Melbourne to meet with a business leader who regularly features on the Forbes Rich list, I saw two men experiencing homelessness within 20 metres of his office. The success of the former, an intelligent and conscientious man with a history of philanthropy, should not imply the hardship of those homeless Australians was due to foolishness or carelessness. It is the culture of poverty, rather than the personal failing of each individual, that our society should aspire to address.


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