Social, economic inequality is on the rise - and represents a threat to our nation’s fabric.
The notion of a fair go and the concept of social mobility are both central to the Australian psyche and culture. Growing up in the 80s as the grandson of illiterate migrants, Australia was a liberal, progressive, fertile society. A country with a strong history of community and social cohesion where rich and poor were shades of a scale and most were able to ‘make their own financial destiny’ - else they would be afforded adequate financial support to find their feet.
But is this changing? And why don’t we see it?
A recent report by The Australia Institute highlights some alarming trends. That the gap between rich and poor is massive and growing, that most of us are concerned, and that our government is doing very little to intervene.
Putting it plainly, it states “inequality between those with the most and those with the least is rising in Australia”. The shades of financial grey are become polarised to the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and it makes a good case of why this is a concern for everyone.
An Unequal Australia.
So what are the facts?
- In Australia, the poorest 20%, comprising 1.73 million households, have less wealth than the ten richest families.
- The wealthiest 20% have 5x more income than the bottom 20%, and hold 71x more financial capital.
- A rift is also growing between the average Australian and those at the top, with senior executive pay now 150x greater than average weekly earnings.
- Women are disproportionated over-represented in the lowest income groups.
- Low-income earners are concentrated in certain regions, often magnifying the negative effects of inequality and creating cores of socio-economic deprivation.
- And last, Australians tend to believe that the income distribution in Australia is much more equal than it really is.
Why does it matter?
This is not just about what is fair or equal, and I know some will shout “nanny state” or “Dane-washed”. But in short, this problem matters for at least three reasons.
First, because of the scale of inequality - and the trend that the problem is worsening, not improving. This issue is so large that it affects our currency, housing prices and the cost of living (placing more pressure on the poor). Regressive policies compounding this issue even affect our nation’s ability to afford and maintain education and healthcare systems.
Second, this is not just a problem for those on lowest incomes - this inequality affects everyone. There is evidence that social inequality leads to unhealthier lives for the wealthiest, as well as the poorest. Everyone loses out as the gap grows.
Finally, social inequality is not just about the health of our current society, but poverty generally creates poverty in the subsequent generation - and the same for wealth. Children in poorer families find it hard to climb the financial ladder (some argue it is largely impossible). As such, this gap widens, becomes inter-generational and becomes a dangerous legacy for the individual, and a two-tiered society.
Why aren’t we acting?
To make matters worse, this challenge is compounded by a lack of political will to reverse the trend, despite evidence that most Australians support progressive measures and are willing to pay for them. In fact 81% of Australians want the level of social services to either remain as they are or increase, even if increases mean additional tax. This, in the context of an Australia government that in recent months has begun to argue that inequality is not just unavoidable, but also beneficial. A ludicrous and dangerous rhetoric when we have clear evidence from around the globe that wealth inequality within nations is associated with violence, disease, social disconnectedness, distrust and more.
Growing yet largely ignored, social inequality threatens the very foundations of our society. At some stage, the concept and verity of focusing solely on social mobility by individuals as the main solution, must be questioned. In the meantime, the health of everyone is at risk. Unaddressed, so is the social cohesion of our community.
Nobel laureate and economist Joseph Stiglitz said:
“Every aspect of our economic, legal, and social frameworks helps shape our inequality: from our education system and how we finance it, to our health system, to our tax laws… In virtually every domain, we have made decisions that help enrich the top at the expense of the rest”
At this juncture we must take heed of the evidence and decide what kind of Australia we want for ourselves and future generations. One where wealth and opportunities are concentrated, social mobility becomes a buzz word and a gap within us grows? Or one where opportunities are shared, we tackle the gap through addressing educational, healthcare, housing and employment inequality and most importantly, we stand up for one another.
Maybe it’s time to see the elephant.