What if poverty is a choice?
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 this wealthy country of ours. In anti-poverty week, it’s worth reflecting on and calling out these statistics (e.g. see ACOSS facts on poverty) 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?
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 politics, take for example the 2017 Welfare Reform Bill that is being debated in parliament.
This is not new. Mark Peel’s 2003 book, The Lowest Rung (a book that affected and stayed with me over time), traced the recent history of poverty in Australia and how it’s perceived and lived. He 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 behavior. It’s easier because it places accountability onto individuals experiencing poverty and largely abdicates responsibility and accountability for change from the rest of society.
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.
At CSI, 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 Mark 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?
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