Tag Archives: Poverty

Is Struggle Street poverty porn?

7 May

Struggle Street

SBS aired the first episode of the documentary Struggle Street last night, amidst the kind of publicity and controversy media outlets dream of.

Briefly, the program follows the daily lives of families and individuals who live in Mount Druitt, a suburb in Sydney’s far west where unemployment and poverty are rife, and all the complexities created by lack of opportunity and marginalisation serve to oppress, in some cases, beyond endurance.

In this erudite review in The Conversation the program is described as “poverty porn,” created by the entitled for the entertainment of the entitled. It’s worth noting the author of this piece had not seen the program before writing his review of it. Always a mistake, in my opinion.

An alternative perspective can be found here, written by a journalist who has, thankfully, actually watched the documentary.

For the first ten minutes I found Struggle Street almost impossible to watch, so palpable was the pain, confusion, frustration and sorrow of the people involved. There seems to be an inevitability about the trajectory of their lives: the possibility of a happy ending, or an even slightly improved ending seems severely limited, not because the people involved are inherently undeserving or morally lax, but because of circumstances so complex that unravelling them requires skills and resources that are simply not available, and that authorities are unwilling to make available.

It is convenient to cast people in such situations as being entirely responsible for their own misfortunes, ignoring the vast web of circumstances created by the more privileged sectors of society, circumstances that inevitably create an underclass whom the privileged then have the satisfaction of despising.

To be poor is to be surveilled in a manner entirely alien to the middle class, where the possibilities of concealment are many and varied, and to whom “privacy” and the right not to be offended or embarrassed is a privilege enshrined in law.  It could be argued that the documentary is yet another form of surveillance of the marginalised, ostensibly entered into voluntarily, to which the middle class would never subject itself. It could also be argued that the privileged creators and viewers who perhaps voyeuristically consumed the program last night found moral gratification, if they needed to look for it, in the abyss between the them of Struggle Street, and the us of the entitled gaze.

For me, what fought its way through the grim despair that haunts the daily lives of many of the participants in this documentary is their humanity. The love of a father for his recalcitrant offspring who steal from him to buy drugs. The determined attempts to create, from nothing, a party atmosphere for small children. The yearning of a young woman, homeless for two years owing to family disruption, to return to learning and thus make something of her life. The ongoing adversarial encounters with authorities such as Centrelink and the police that are part of the daily grind that must be faced and endured. People keep struggling to love, to make things better, to stay alive, all against the overwhelming influences of forces beyond their control.

Struggle Street is not, to my mind, poverty porn, though there are those who will choose to view it as such. This says more to me about them, than it does about the program and its participants. There will be the righteously self-congratulatory who measure their success against the apparent failures of the residents of Struggle Street. That can’t be avoided, however, that they need to make such a measure speaks volumes, and not about Struggle Street. What I would hope is that this documentary will confront us with the ferocious inequalities in our society, and the inhumanity of political authority that refuses resources and care to those who most need it, opting instead to blame and punish and marginalise. Mount Druitt does not exist in a vacuum. If this series demonstrates anything, it ought to be that reality.

PS: And the Guardian agrees with me.

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No love in Abbott government’s tough

12 Jun

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have taken to describing their budgetary cruelty as an act of “tough love” for which we may well rail against them in the present, but will respect them for in the years ahead, presumably when we can see how their tough love has achieved the goal of all tough love, that is to bring the poor amongst us to their senses and force them to live non-vulnerable, standing-on-their-own-two-feet lives, or die.

Tough love is a phrase usually associated with advice given to parents of drug-addicted offspring: refuse support in order to achieve a drug-free outcome. It demands that one have sufficient strength to withdraw all assistance that might enable the addict to continue on their self-destructive path. It requires the stamina to watch another spiral into an abject desolation and marginalisation that is allegedly entirely his or her own doing, and in which, the theory would have it, the addict will hit their own personal bottom line and in so doing begin the long trip back to sobriety and a decent life. I have no idea if it works or not.

There is no love in the tough Abbott and Hockey are dealing out to the vulnerable who will bear the brunt of their withdrawal of government support. Indeed, it is very telling that Abbott and Hockey appear to equate (with no evidence whatsoever to support their bigoted assumptions) economic vulnerability with anti social addictions, and have set about “curing” the vulnerability by withdrawing already meagre support in the deranged belief that if you make people starve, they will stop being vulnerable. Vulnerability is, in the Abbott and Hockey ideology, a choice, and people must be forced to stop making it by using the harshest possible methods until they hit their bottom line, and wake up one morning enlightened, repentant, and ready to get a job.

This government has no interest in equality. The admirable ethos of the “fair go,” so intrinsic to what we fondly think of as our national character, has been mangled beyond recognition in the first few months of the Abbott incumbency. Instead, we have Hockey thundering why should you pay for someone else’s education, completely overlooking the fact that someone else paid for his. We contribute to the costs of educating others because it benefits all of us. Educating people gives us the professionals who are absolutely essential to our daily lives and well-being.

Abbott and his government are in the business of installing a new regime of truth, one that is foreign to us, a regime that casts fairness and concern for others in a negative light, a move that is made even more inexplicable by the Christian affiliations of the PM and his Treasurer. The marriage of religion and neo liberalism apparently spawns an extreme of wilful ignorance, and the inevitably cruelty that accompanies the trait.

In his excellent piece in The King’s Tribune, Tim Dunlop argues that progressives need to change the current conversation, that there is little to be gained in agitating for a change in LNP leadership, or castigating Abbott, pining for Turnbull or bringing back the ALP in its current configuration. The Australian ALP appears to be in its own downward spiral, following the lead of the UK Labour Party, described by George Monbiot in this Guardian piece  as selfishly committed to inequality in its acts of omission, and its commitment to supporting aspects of the obscene Tory attacks on that county’s vulnerable.

What progressives must do, Dunlop argues, is work from the premise that we do want a country in which it is possible to offer everyone a fair crack at a decent life, a premise that will lead us in a very different direction from that offered by the LNP. The way in which we might achieve this revolution is by vocalising our resistance to the government’s imposition of inequality as a way of life in our country, using protest and withdrawal of labour. Where there is power there is always resistance, as Foucault noted, and the most powerful form of resistance available to citizens in situations such as ours is taking to the streets, as often as we have to, and letting the government know we are not a people who desire the increased suffering of the already vulnerable, rather we are a people who will fight for the fair go.

There is no love in the Abbott government’s tough. Much as Abbott and Hockey seek to portray themselves as men of character who are willing to risk short-term popularity for long-term gain, the reality is these men have gone for the jugular of the most vulnerable human beings in our country. There will be no long-term gain for the vulnerable. There will be increasing hardship, despair and disintegration. Abbott and Hockey will deliver us a new underclass, generations of citizens who have never been given a fair go.

Vulnerable people have never experienced entitlement, that is the province of the wealthy and comfortable. The age of entitlement is not over, it thrives. The age of the fair go has come to a sticky end, and we will all be the poorer for its death.

Abbott uses society’s vulnerable as means to an ideological end

2 May

It seems to me that it’s a core conservative tradition to use  the most vulnerable people in society as a means to an ideological end. There are endless current examples of this: threats to pensions, restricted access to Newstart for unemployed youth, destruction of universal healthcare, proposed reduction of the minimum wage and a cap on that wage for the next ten years, all part of the Commission of Audit’s recommendations to the Abbott government prior to its first budget in a couple of weeks.

None of these measures will affect anyone as disastrously as they will affect the poor, and while middle class journalists  on a good wage, some of whom are Abbott’s most vocal supporters,  scream like stuck pigs about the flagged “debt levy” on incomes over $80,000, nobody much is pointing out the ideologically-based, systematic crippling of the lives of those who struggle hardest to keep poverty from their doors.

Conservatives seem to hold the ideological position that poverty is a moral failing, for which the individual is solely accountable, and if that individual has been incapable of taking care of her or himself and his or her family, they’ve no one to blame but themselves. If they do sink into a morass of underprivileged misery then they ought to be able to find ways to redeem themselves. If they don’t manage this feat, they obviously only deserve what little they get, and the conservative will do his or her best to take even that away.

This unexamined belief that the less financially fortunate are immoral and a drain on the prudent is, it seems, impossible to eradicate from the consciousness of the privileged and entitled, who lack any ability to comprehend context, and the myriad forces at work in society that affect the course of a life. This, coupled with the conservatives’ traditional love of a good clichéd stereotype, works to reinforce their sense of entitlement, and their contempt for anyone less blessed than are they.

The conservative disregard, some may even allege contempt,  for those other than (lesser than) themselves, allows them to use rational agents as a means to an end, contradicting the Kantian position that to use others as a means, and not an end in themselves, is to flout the fundamental principle of morality.  Perhaps this is nowhere as starkly obvious as in the current and previous governments’ treatment of asylum seekers. Both major political parties have, for many years now, used boat arrivals as a means to achieve political success, and not as rational agents deserving of consideration as ends in themselves. In this sense, the ALP finds itself on the same side as conservative politicians, something that should chill the heart of any ALP supporter.

There is no point in decrying the lack of humanity and compassion in conservative ideology. Both qualities are regarded as belonging to the bleeding hearts of the left, hindrances to freedom, obstacles to profit. So we find ourselves in the bizarre position of having a Human Rights Commissioner for Freedom, Tim Wilson, who recently claimed that McDonalds has “human rights to own property” and that “spending” is an expression of free speech.

It’s a dangerous situation when a Commissioner for Human Rights equates the ability to spend with the right to freedom of any kind, including speech.

It makes no sense to take any measures that prevent or discourage people from taking care of their health, such as co-payments for doctor visits for example. This will increase the pressure on accident and emergency departments, already stretched beyond their means, and result in people becoming chronically ill, at much greater expense to the taxpayer.

It makes no sense to continue to spend billions of dollars incarcerating a few thousand asylum seekers, for example, when there are many less expensive options  such as allowing refugees to live in, work, and contribute to the community.

It makes no sense to waste billions on a paid parental leave system when the money could be much better invested in increased child care for parents who want to work, but find it difficult to access adequate care for their offspring. Good child care is also an investment in our future: children can benefit enormously from early education and socialisation, a child care centre doesn’t simply “mind” them, it educates them.

However, none of the above is of any consequence to a political party driven by ideology. Humans are, to such a party, a means to an ideological end, not an end in themselves. Obviously, it is much easier to treat the less financially blessed as a means to an end, and if you already believe poverty and disadvantage to be  indicators of lack of morality and worth, why would you care anyway?

You may not agree with Kant’s categorical imperative, but there is something very dark about the Abbott government’s willingness to impose harsh circumstances on those already doing without in this wealthy country. It is easy, Mr Abbott, to make life more difficult for those without the power to protest. It is more of a challenge to work towards an equitable society based not on ideology, but common sense, and respect for everyone’s humanity.

Note: It’s with my tongue firmly in my cheek that I use this conservative image of Jesus.

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Abbott dumps on low income Australians from the ski fields of France.

30 Dec

There can be no doubt that the proposed government tax of $6 on visits to the doctor will only seriously affect those already struggling to keep heads above water, and one has to ask, why would any government decide to make things even more difficult than they already are for a considerable number of its citizens?

Pensioners and those holding concession cards will be exempt from the charge, however, this exemption does not cover low-income earners ineligible for such assistance.

The proposed GP tax is intended to be  “a simple yet powerful reminder that, as far as possible, we have a responsibility to look after our own health, not simply pass on all the costs of, and the responsibility for, caring for ourselves to fellow taxpayers…” reads the report provided to the government by The Australian Centre for Health Research, a conservative think tank, why am I not surprised.

Of course those of us who are able ought to take as much responsibility for our health as possible, and visiting the doctor when ill is taking responsibility, whether we’re well off or not. There is little more irresponsible than self-neglect, except of course a government that places a group of its citizens in a situation where self-neglect becomes their only option.

As is usual with conservative think tanks, no allowance is made for those who are as morally responsible as anyone else, but lack financial means.  One could be forgiven for taking this one step further, and assuming conservative think tanks and their masters conflate a lack of means with moral turpitude and its attendant irresponsibility. The outcome of such thinking is that those who are too poor to pay for their own health care really should be left to die, as there is no place in a conservative world for anyone who can’t, for whatever reason, fund their own lives.

As the purpose of the new tax is to relieve the burden of demand on our health care system, conservatives are obviously of the opinion that it is the less financially fortunate among us who are burdensome. No middle class individual goes to her or his GP unnecessarily, it is assumed, as a mere $6 is unlikely to dissuade them from this practice. No, only the poor are responsible for draining our medical resources, presumably because of all the burgers, fries, & coke they consume instead of the healthy food they could afford, if only they would stay home from the doctor’s long enough to put their minds to their budgets.

Obviously a $6 charge whenever one visits the doctor isn’t going to be an oppressive discouragement for those who are reasonably well off, though depending on one’s state of health and number of children, it could quickly add up. However, if finances are already stretched in a household, an additional $6 for every doctor’s visit could conceivably lead to a decision not to make that visit in circumstances where it’s necessary.

It will almost certainly lead to increased pressure on already stretched hospital accident and emergency facilities, as an option for those unable to afford the tax.

That a government even considers creating a situation in which any citizens are discouraged from attending to their health and the health of their children is an obscenity. The message Prime Minister Abbot is sending from the slopes of the French Alps where I understand he and his family are enjoying a ski ing holiday, is that below a certain level of income, the health of Australian citizens is of no interest to him and his government. It is, it seems, incomprehensible to the leader of this country that for many people there is simply not $6 to spare.

Such failures of imagination are predictable in a politics in which middle class welfare and protection of the wealthy are the priority of government that increasingly appears to govern in their interests.

Or as Gerry Harvey unforgettably expressed it when offering his views on charity for the homeless:

“It might be a callous way of putting it but what are they doing? You are helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason. They are just a drag on the whole community.

“So did that million you gave them help? It helped to keep them alive but did it help our society? No. Society might have been better off without them but we are supposed to look after the disadvantaged and so we do it. But it doesn’t help the society.”

It’s a slippery slope you’re ski-ing Mr Abbott.

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