Make poverty his story

Published in Parity, Vol. 21, No. 1, Feb 2008: 37.

The struggle for human rights has taken many forms over the centuries. Some of those struggles have been for: the right of assembly, the right not to be detained arbitrarily, the end of slavery, the franchise, the end of gender discrimination, the right to be represented by a union, universal access to basic education and health services and the demise of racial discrimination. Such battles are not over, even in developed nations such as Australia.

People are still trafficked in the sex industry; unionists are run off some work sites – often with the assistance of agents of government; asylum seekers are mandatorily detained; the recent anti-terrorism legislation severely limits citizens’ rights; free assembly is only guaranteed if the police don’t oppose it; prisoners serving lengthy sentences are denied the vote – as are people who are transient or people under the age of 18 years; many poor people do not gain access to schools and health services; many gender inequalities remain and discrimination on the basis of race is a daily occurrence. This is particularly so in Indigenous Australia. At least in most Australian cities, lip service is paid to the importance of all these human rights.

Despite Australia signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights nearly sixty years ago, we have not passed enabling legislation which could give effect to the generous economic and social rights which these treaties promise. Were we to enact national legislation honouring the international commitments which we, as a nation, have made to the world and to our own people, many of the current human economic rights for which many Australians are struggling would need to be recognized by the government.

These international treaties cover rights such as the right to work, the right to adequate social services and the right to decent income support. Were these guaranteed by the government, then most people who find themselves homeless would be in a position to find their own shelter. Those who were homeless would need to be provided with adequate accommodation. We would no longer live in a wealthy country where more than 60 percent of those who approach a homeless person’s crisis accommodation centre are turned away.

Many social science writers are arguing that whilst the 20th century was the one which started to enshrine political human rights – the 21st century will be the one in which we obtain economic human rights. They suggest that the western world is now so wealthy there is no longer an excuse for governments which fail to guarantee the basic economic needs of every permanent resident of a country. We could feed, house, clothe, educate and provide basic health services to every person on the planet if we spent just one twelfth of the money the world spends annually on military expenditure on social welfare instead.

For us to move in this direction would take a massive change in the thinking of many of the richest people in the world. But there are many more of us than them and if we start to move towards more egalitarian policies we can drive our governments away from the “profits first people last” policies of the “greed is good” minority.

We need to recognise that while there are many poor white people in western countries, poverty is predominantly experienced by people whose skin colour is brown or black and if we look closely we notice that the majority are female. Rich white men don’t know much about poverty. Some claim they became rich because of their good luck, some because of their superior intellect and some because of hard work. We should ask the last of these rich white men “Whose hard work?” The reality is that most people who become rich by honest means were given a good start in life by their parents. Those lucky enough to be able to use their “superior intelligence” have every right to contribute to humanity, but what gives them the right to take inordinately from the common wealth?

If we are going to succeed in making poverty and homelessness history, we need to work with poor brown, black and white women and men in a way which respects their autonomy. We must work with working-class and middle-class people to convince them to get involved in the struggle for a fairer world or at least not oppose the provision of basic income support and community services to all permanent residents of their country in the short-term and everyone in the world after that. But we will have to work very hard with rich white men to get them to understand the destruction that poverty causes and the benefits that ending it would bring. In that sense, we are going to have to make poverty his story.