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Poverty and Inequality

John Graham MLC

For many years NSW Treasurer Matt Kean has been attempting to pass himself off as a minor member of the Kennedy clan, posing under a poster of JFK at the slightest provocation.

In my view he would do better to take inspiration from another Kennedy – Robert Kennedy – and RFK’s focus on the impact of poverty in his community.

Bobby Kennedy served on the Senate’s subcommittees on Migratory Labor and Poverty. His interest in poverty encompassed both urban areas, including Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and also rural America, most famously in an encounter in April 1967 in the Mississippi Delta. The scenes of childhood poverty RFK saw there stayed with him.

Back home in Australia, issues of poverty and inequality are regarded as the domain of the Federal Government. In one sense that is for good reason. Federal Governments hold many of the tax and welfare levers so important to determining levels of poverty in Australia.

However I believe that tackling poverty and inequality is also a state issue, especially as Australia’s cost of living crisis intensifies.

Labor’s platform now recognises this. After a key conference debate in 2017, platform commitments make decreasing inequality a major state Labor priority.

The poverty statistics tell their own story. In 2020, 11.4 per cent of people in New South Wales were living on less than 50 per cent of the median income, one of the commonly accepted definitions of poverty. 7.2 per cent of the population lived on less than 40 per cent of median income and 4.1 per cent of people on less than 30 per cent.

We know that decreasing levels of inequality can boost economic performance, especially when inequality presents a barrier to full participation in the workforce, or where it stops people reaching their full potential.

That provides a reason for a particular focus on the working poor. In New South Wales, 5 per cent of those in full-time work and 7 per cent of those in part-time work are living in poverty. In Australia the working poor are most likely to work in the industry sectors of agriculture, fishing and forestry or accommodation and food services.

State government holds five of the key levers that directly impact poverty and inequality:

  • The justice system, with its tendency to entrench disadvantage.

  • State cost of living measures and state fines, including driving fines, are generally not means tested either and impact differently on different communities.

  • Service delivery in health and education varies greatly according to geography and can compound disadvantage.

  • State government holds key housing policy levers that impact on homelessness, which is heavily linked to poverty.

  • Government grant programmes are often insufficiently rigorous, with grants going to the loudest local lobby group, not on the basis of need.

Poverty leads to distress and social dislocation. Experienced in childhood, the effects can last a lifetime. Children growing up in poverty are less likely to have a job and more likely to report ongoing nervousness.

Being poor can be lonely. With less money to eat out, to go out or in the most tolled city in the world to even get around, life can be very isolating.

In my inaugural speech, I said that living out the back of Albury in public housing taught me that often communities that rely most on government feel the least engaged by politics. As a result, compared to other issues represented by energetic lobby groups, poverty can often be unseen.

Hence the need to turn the NSW spotlight to poverty and inequality. One way to do that is to take a leaf out of RFK’s book, and in the next term of parliament launch a wide-ranging inquiry into poverty and inequality in NSW.

Such an inquiry should look at the extent of poverty and inequality in NSW. It should look behind the statistics at the causes and examine the state levers that could be used to help. The inquiry should tell the stories of poverty and inequality right across our state, especially for the working poor.

We live in one of the richest nations on earth, at the richest time in human history. If we cannot tackle these issues now, when will we ever be able to?

After the pandemic more seems possible, when even an intractable issue like rough sleeping could be temporarily solved with hotel accommodation. Pandemic welfare measures also showed how quickly government action can address poverty. In 2020, an 8 per cent rise in incomes of the lowest 20 per cent saw many being able to afford essentials, bills and rent without stress for the first time. St Vincent de Paul New South Wales reported a 75 per cent drop in people needing help.

Even if we do win the next election, a wideranging inquiry would serve an important purpose. Such a complex problem that crosses agencies and jurisdictions is simply too large for one agency or one program to deal with it. Real progress requires a change in the culture and focus of government.

I hold out little hope that the Treasurer will switch Kennedys at this late stage so it will be left to a winning Labor Government to act in the spirit of RFK, launching a wide-ranging Legislative Council inquiry as one of its first acts with a mandate to detail and expose the issues of poverty and inequality in NSW.

John Graham is the Deputy Labor Leader in the NSW Legislative Council


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