Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

An Ever-Rising Tide? Poverty in Australia in the Eighties

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

An Ever-Rising Tide? Poverty in Australia in the Eighties

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Poverty, an issue that hardly featured in Australian political debate at the turn of the decade, has come to haunt the Hawke government since its election in 1983. In part this reflects a growing awareness in the community that poverty in general--and child poverty in particular--has become more prevalent in a society characterised by high levels of unemployment. It probably also partly reflects higher community expectations of what a Labor government would and should do to alleviate poverty once elected to office. In response to these pressures, Prime Minister Hawke announced during the 1987 election campaign his famous pledge that *by 1990 no child will be living in poverty'. That pledge gave the impetus for the government to introduce an extensive range of measures designed to provide additional assistance to low income families with children. But at the same time it provided a benchmark against which the government's achievement in reducing child poverty could be assessed. Such an assessment had never before been possible in Australia, not only because no previous government had made such a specific policy commitment, but also because the data and research techniques required to undertake such an assessment were not available until quite recently. In the event, the results from the assessments that have been undertaken show that the child poverty pledge has not been fulfilled. Poverty continues to affect large numbers of Australian children and their parents. Such work does, however, raise fundamental questions relating to the measurement of poverty which also need to be addressed. This paper will present both the results and the research and policy issues to which they give rise.

That poverty still exists even in a rich country like Australia had been demonstrated by the work of the Poverty Commission in the early seventies. That work pointed to unemployment and family break-up as important factors increasing the risk of poverty, in addition to sickness and disability, old age and inadequate income support payments for families with large numbers of children. The Poverty Commission had the wisdom to locate the poverty problem within a broader context of overall economic performance and the conditions which allowed structural inequalities in society to persist. It noted, in particular that:

If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it. Although individual members of society are reluctant to accept responsibility for the existence of poverty, its continuance is a judgement on the society which condones the conditions causing poverty. (Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, 1975, p. viii)

The Hawke government's corporatist approach to economic management, its Accord agreement with the ACTU, and its commitment to social justice policies raised legitimate hopes that the Poverty Commission's objectives might at last be achieved. Here, it seemed, was a policy framework which had the potential at least, to address issues of economic and social inequality, although seven years into the Hawke ALP government it appears that much remains to be done.

This paper substantiates these remarks by presenting estimates of trends in poverty between 1981-82 and 1989-90. It will become apparent that these estimates are just that- estimates -produced by the application of one particular method to the measurement of poverty. The method adopted follows as closely as possible that developed by the Poverty Commission in the seventies. That method has, however, come under considerable criticism from a number of quarters in the last fifteen years. Some of these criticisms will become apparent during the course of the paper. Despite these criticisms, however, the methods developed by the Poverty Commission have proved so far to be remarkably resilient. Although the approach has never received official endorsement by government, neither has any serious official attempt been made to replace it with an alternative. …

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