Choose Poverty: The poorest 2 billion people on this planet can’t be wrong – but they can be wronged

Published in New Community Quarterly 2013, Vol 11, No 4, Issue 44.

(A paper given at: The fish always smells from the head down: it’s not the poor but the stinking rich who are the problem. Seminar, Gold Coast Campus of the Southern Cross University on 3 October 2013)

After the 193os Depression and the Second World War there was a determination in Britain, New Zealand, Australia, many parts of Europe and to a lesser extent the United States of America, to abolish what Beveridge called the “Five Giants”, namely:  “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness” (BBC 2013).  A serious attempt was made in Britain and Australia to expand the welfare state significantly. In 1964 United States President Lyndon Johnston declared a “war on poverty” but somehow these efforts have metamorphosed into a war against the poor (Tomlinson 2o13). Perhaps this is because, as the American community worker, Si Kahn, pointed out in 1970, we will quite happily spend $2o billion to put a man on the moon but won’t spend $20 to put a man on his feet.

The rich are getting richer, the middle classes are being hollowed out and the poor are sinking deeper into poverty throughout much of the Anglo-speaking world and the western world more generally. Despite the United Nations setting Millennium goals designed to abolish poverty in the Third World, famine, starvation and malnutrition still cause about 40,000 deaths every day of the year. Louis D. Brandeis has indicated that,

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both (History of Giving)”.

Some conservative Christian fundamentalists suggest that there is little that can or even should be done about poverty and they justify such a view by quoting Jesus saying: “The poor will always be with us.” (Matthew 26:11)  However were they to read on and put the statement in context, they would see Jesus quoting (Deuteronomy 15:10-11): “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’ (Humble Monkey 2009).”

If we made a cut of just one-tenth in the amount of money spent on defence forces and armaments in the world, we could feed, house, clothe, supply primary education and provide  primary health care to everyone in the world who currently misses out. But we won’t because rich people think they need such defence forces to protect them and their property from poor people.

George Monbiot writing in The Guardian on the 14th January 2013 noted that:

“In 2o12, the world’s 100 richest people became $241 billion richer.  They are worth  just a little less than the entire output of the United Kingdom.”

He suggested that the policies leading to this result included reductions in the tax rates paid by high income earners, failing to pursue tax payments from the rich, “government’s refusal to recoup a decent share of revenues from minerals and the land; the privatisation of public assets and the creationof a toll-booth economy… and the destruction of collective bargaining.”

“The Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank, calculates that chief executives at America’s 350 biggest companies were paid 231 times as much as the average private-sector worker in 2011” (JS. 2012). This same think-tank calculated that in the year 2ooo, these executives or their equivalents had been paid in the order of 40o times average private-sector workers: whereas in 1975 this ratio was only 20 times the average workers salary. At Walmart, the ratio between the pay of the CEO and their median workers is over 1,000 to one (CEO 2o13). “The average total remuneration of a chief executive of a top 50 company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2010 is $6.4 million – or almost 100 times that of the average wage.

In September 2012 Gina Rinehart said “Africans want to work, and its workers are willing to work for less than $2 per day.  Such statistics make me worry for this country’s future… The BBC estimated that, while Mrs Rinehart was talking about pay rates for African workers she was earning $600 a second (Sydney Morning Herald)”.

Gina’s father, Lang Hancock, made most of his money from exporting iron ore but got an early start mining asbestos.  Wittenoom was named by Lang Hancock after Frank Wittenoom, his partner in the nearby Mulga Downs Station.

“ln 1943 mining began in Wittenoom Gorge. In 1947 a company town was built, and by the 19950s it was the Pilbara’s largest town. During the 1950s and early 1960s Wigttenoom was Australia’s only supplier of blue asbestos. The town was shut down in 1966 due to unprofitability and growing health concerns from asbestos mining in the area”(Wikipedia).

As Australian folk singer, Garry Shearston put it in the 1960s:

‘Australian Blue Asbestos don’t you ever forget
that as good as you give is as good as you get
and remember though the going may be hard
that a miner is a man not a number on a card.’

The workers got asbestosis, mesothelioma and other respiratory conditions. Lang Hancock got the profits. The original Indigenous owners of the land got left with the asbestos pollution.

The race war

Aborigines have had to bear 225 years of the race war. The NT Intervention is just the latest manifestation of that ongoing determination to take from the Indigenous community whatever the invaders want. Sometimes it was land or minerals, sometimes women, children or labour. And sometimes it was the need to deprive them of their dignity or to assert control or both. Anyone wishing to establish that the race war has ended needs to show that the contemporary Indigenous community is being treated on just terms and that just reparation has been made for past wrongs.

Many white Australians rather talk about ‘the Aboriginal problem’ than turn their mind to justice for the original owners of this land. Dennis Walker on numerous platforms declared ‘There is no Aboriginal problem there is only a white problem.’  It may well be that it is the excessive acquisitiveness of non-Indigenous people   which exacerbates Indigenous people’s health and socio-economic position – compare the returns which Lang Hancock received from Pilbara iron mining with the rewards the traditional owners received.

It may be the failure of non-indigenous society to come to a just accommodation with Indigenous Australians that is the problem. It may be the sheer bloody-mindedness of politicians and their public servants that is at least part of the problem. But integral to how this all plays out is the way mainstream Australians regard the provision of social security, health and educational services. In particular the way in which politicians happily attach a range of obligations to any assistance provided.(Tomlinson 2o11)

On Late Night Live on 2o/9/1999, Bee Campbell noted that the powerless and marginalised know much more about those who oppress them than their oppressors know about poor people – the problem is that there is little that poor people can individually do to address the totality of issues confronting the least affluent. There is an additional difficulty and that is that too many rich people don’t have any interest in changing the situation. In fact, their vested interests are designed to keep marginalised people subjugated.

The precariat

In Australia,  for most of the period 195o until 199o, most jobs were secure, the system of arbitration was reasonably fair, the majority of people who were looking for work found some form of employment within a few weeks and nearly everyone without income was entitled to some form of social security. These days, the eligibility requirements for social security have been tightened, the regulations are enforced more ruthlessly, and successful recipients find they have extensive obligations to meet if they are to continue to receive benefits. At the same time secure jobs are fast disappearing – casual and part-time employment is becoming the norm. The age of the precarious worker is upon us.(Standing 2011).

The free movement of money and a restricted movement of labour

There is a free movement of money around the world and that suits the super rich and allows them to extract profits ancl concessions from governments, particularly governments of smaller and developing countries. Restricting the movement of labour often is in the interests of the well-off; 457 visas help control the in-situ workforce and save employers having to train the local workforce.  Simultaneously, the 457 visa regulations constrain imported temporary workers.

Downward envy

It is not only the bourgeoisie but also some ordinary workers who can be conscripted to attack the unemployed, migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, disability pensioners and Aborigines. It is not only the rich who would deny welfare payments to many people living in poverty. Once the State can cut off a section of the working class or the unemployed from the main working class movement, it can set out to expand its wedging and politics of envy. Howard started with the young unemployed but it wasn’t long before all unemployed were metamorphosed into “dole bludgers” and “job slobs”. Asylum seekers became grist to the mill. Then Disability Pensioners found out they were a bunch of “malingerers” whose numbers had to be cut by a third.  Then came the turn of single parents and their children.  Subsequent Labor governments have followed suit.

Once people come to accept the corrosive belief that because they don’t get government assistance to help raise their children or cope with a disability then no-one should; and if they do then it should be doled out like charity from the parish poor box.  Such people forget that they get tax cuts and government superannuation subsidies, which the poor don’t get, nor do they seem to notice that they aren’t poor and that they don’t have a disability. (Tomlinson 2009)

Tough love

The ruthlessness of the super rich and their welfare apologists such as Lawrence Mead (1986o, 1997) is on open display. They happily talk about the need for tough love to assist people off welfare because they claim that it is what the poor need and in their hearts really want.  Such attitudes may have been unexceptional in mid-20th century male-dominated divorce proceedings, but in civilised society they are a thing of the past.  Apart from Indigenous or welfare policy areas where else would such arcane policies be tolerated?


I’m now living in Sydney where they have the ICAC (a corruption commissioner), which has just handed down findings which indicate that an ex-Labor Party Mining Minister (Ian McDonald) had (without calling for tenders) granted a mining lease to a union official mate (John Maitland) that resulted in him gaining millions of dollars in profits when the ‘training mine’ was on-sold.  One of McDonald’s Labor politician mates (Eddie Obied) and his family gained $60 million after their farm was gazetted as a mine lease.  These three will probably go to jail in the fullness of time.  The ‘business men’ (pseudonyms for company directors and investors in Cascade Coal and Whitehaven Coal) who bought the mines – and who stand to make hundreds of millions from their shady dealings with Maitland and Obied – will probably walk free.

I hate seeing underutilised infrastructure and have long thought that if we were to hang one member of the bourgeoisie from every lamp-post in Australia we’d have a much more pleasant country in which to live.

Alternatively, Clive Palmer could load as many of the richest people in Australia as will fit onto his Titanic II and sail off to the depths of the Antarctic.  Once there, he should replicate the events of the original Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The mode of distribution

The mode of production is obviously weighted in the interests of capital and has for many centuries been thus. The mode of distribution could be designed along a number of alternative lines.  Karl Marx attempted to synthetise  both these modes in 1875 in his Critique of the Gotha Program when he proposed that the arrangement should be: “From each according to ability, to each according to need“. Such an arrangement might be an anathema to those economic fundamentalists who want desperately to  believe that the invisible hands of the market are the final arbiter of good taste and moral rectitude, and other capitalists would see such a system as ultra-left utopianism. It has to be admitted that beyond small-scale hunter-gatherer or anarchist communities this idea has never been fully implemented. Furthermore, because it too relies on the concept of need it has many of the weaknesses of targeted categorical welfare systems.

If we are to see how the rich gain exponentially from the various modes of distribution then we need to spend some time looking at the history of the welfare state and its modern construction.

The Poor Laws

The needs-based approach has been a central component of’ welfare relief since before the 1600 Poor Law was introduced in England. The concept of less eligibility lies at the heart of the method of determining who shall be assisted and who will be refused. Less eligibility refers to the principle enshrined in the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 that ensures recipients of state support should receive benefits at a level below the wage of the lowest paid labourer, so as not to deter them from efforts to obtain employment.

The desire to assist ‘all those in need’ is in effect a determination to refuse assistance to all those who do not fit into some societally approved, arbitrarily defined (albeit undeclared) and somewhat flexible set of rules.

Guy Standing (2002, pp. 173-174) makes the point that: “Although its adherents like to use the word ‘new’, workfare has a long tradition. It was enshrined in the English Poor Law of 1536 dealing with ‘sturdy vagabonds’ and in the French Ordonnance de Moulins of 1556. The most famous precedent was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act in Great Britain, a targeted system designed to reach only the ‘deserving’ and desperate poor (italics in original)”. Joel Handler (2002, footnote No. 217) traces this distinction back to the Statute of Labourers in 1348 with its prohibition against the giving of alms to “sturdy beggars”. Such distinctions have probably been around since the concept of charity emerged.

Just how ruthless and desperate were the workhouses conducted under the auspices of the Poor Laws can be glimpsed from Charles Lamport (1870) description of them cited by Sanborn (1899):

Its practice is, that no destitute person, however meritorious, can benefit by this organization without having to pass under something very like the old Roman yoke. On the one side of the Caudine forks, a man stands erect, self-respecting and respected, and with name unstained; on the other side he crouches, a changed and degraded being. He has become a social pariah, hopes destroyed, spirit crushed, reputation gone. Society, before it yields what it dare not refuse, so embitters the morsel by contempt that neither giver nor receiver is blessed in the act.

Poor Laws dealt with the claims of the poor and destitute as distinct from the rights of citizenship and was only available “if the claimants ceased to be citizens in any true sense of the word” (Marshall 195o, p.128).

Charity systems like those of the poor law era were underpinned by a concept of noblesse oblige… the obligation of the nobility to show generosity to the poor, but certainly not to be so generous as to bring those assisted to a point where they might be tempted not to work.  It did not treat every applicant for assistance equally, instead bestowing generosity on the most worthy and refusing the unworthy.

It would be possible to move to a mode of distribution based on citizenship or permanent residence. Such schemes are currently being advocated in many South American countries, Mexico city, several parts of Europe, Namibia, India and elsewhere. It takes the form of a universal income guarantee. It is called a Basic Income (BIEN). It would pay each individual permanent resident an above-the-poverty-line income irrespective of whether they work or not and irrespective of whether they live with a partner. Tax would be paid on any other income the person received from the first to the last dollar earned. The Australian advocates run a website (BIGA). But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

The existing welfare system

The Welfare State in Australia is allegedly run to assist the poor. It is based on the concept of deciding who is in need, oblivious of the fact that “need” is in the eye of the beholder. It is targeted, categorical and means-tested. It is really there to serve the rich… to control dissent. It does this in ways not dissimilar to a system of noblesse oblige. Age pensioners are paid more than unemployed people. Widow Pensioners have different rules applying to them when compared with lone parents. The categorical system, because of the way it interprets “need”, discriminates between applicants who are very alike… it is designed to divide and control… it utilises stigma, apportions blame, applies sanctions and imposes obligations upon recipients. It enforces a system of less eligibility with the mystification that it does so in order to assist the poor to avoid dependency.

Dependency and welfare cheating

Jocelyn Newman, Minister for Social Security, in the Howard Coalition Government, railed against the alleged dependency of welfare recipients. “She made her reputation as the minister who clamped down on welfare cheats.” (When she retired she received) “three taxpayer-funded super pensions”. (Her) own $77,500 a year superannuation, $63,000 a year parliamentary pension of her late husband and at least $25,000 (a year) from his time in the military”. (Megalogenis 2oo1 ).

It’s the same the whole world over
ain’t it all a blooming shame
it’s the rich what lives on clover
and the poor what gets the blame.

During the 1970s, several welfare leaders wrote papers calling on the government to ‘target the poor‘. They argued that social welfare operatives had a duty to concentrate their attention on assisting the poorest people. In 1986, in a paper entitled “Target the Rich Not the Poor“, I argued, “It is very important to oppose categorical and needs-based income maintenance payments and work towards universal incomes.  We must drag the idea of worthiness from its hiding place in the heart of every conservative and hang it by the neck until it is dead” (pps. 9-10).

Polanyi, sardonically reflecting upon those who, in the last quarter of the 19th century, wanted to replace all parish-provided welfare relief in England with private charity, wrote: “But once the indigent were left to the mercy of the well-to-do, who can doubt that ‘the only difficulty’ is to restrain the impetuosity of  the latter’s benevolence?” (1945, p.121). There are still rich right-wing libertarians who argue  that governments should withdraw from providing social security because philanthropists would provide better welfare assistance to the poor.  Adding a critical edge to Polanyi is the idea that “A philanthropist is someone who gives away  what he should give back (anon).

Basic Income : A way forward

A Basic Income does not assist according to need  but it does tax according to ability to accumulate other income. Because it avoids assessing need, it does  not control the least affluent nor does it divide permanent residents from each other. It provides the basis for social solidarity. It is paid to both rich and poor and so avoids imposing stigma on anyone. Because it is paid to each individual, it avoids intra-family repression. Because it is paid equally to all it avoids sexism, racism, disables, ageism or any other form of discrimination.   It encourages work but does not compel any form of reciprocity.  Because it is an above-the-poverty-line income, which can’t be garnisheed by government or industry, it allows workers to refuse to be conscripted into undertaking unsafe, undesirable or underpaid employment.  A Basic Income has the capacity to become, in extreme circumstances, a permanent strike fund (Offe 2008).  A Basic Income can’t be denied to any permanent resident, asylum seeker or citizen.  But best of all, because it is a universal payment, a Basic Income can’t be used by the filthy rich to set the working class against itself.  There would no longer be a need to have welfare officials scouring the country looking for welfare cheats because we would all have the same entitlement.  These welfare officials could be converted into tax officials and could spend their days happily pursuing stinking rich tax cheats.

Instructions to the little Aussie battler

Work harder.
Make someone else redundant.
This is efficiency.
Competition is our salvation.
This way we cost our betters less.
One day we’ll be internationally competitive
and get paid a dollar
for a fourteen hour day.
Then we’ll understand
what world’s best practice means


I wish to thank Penny Harrington for her editorial assistance.


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