Kylie and Jason have been in a state of perpetual excitement for months with the thought of the arrival of their first child. Life has been a struggle for them. Jason, like many other Australians, cannot get a regular, full-time job. He works hard and is conscientious but he is only able to get casual work. Kylie also works part time, but when her baby is born she will have to forgo the $80 a week she earns at the local sandwich shop. The monthly rental on the two-bedroom weatherboard flat still has to be paid, so Jason has recently taken some casual work at night. Upcoming costs associated with the birth and the arrival of the baby cause both of them to be anxious. How will they survive on such a small and uncertain income?
A few streets away Marika and Sam are also full of excitement at the arrival of their first child. They both have professional jobs and earn five times as much as Kylie and Jason. Both have been educated at expensive private schools, and attended Melbourne University, where they met. Money is not an issue and Marika has been able to afford her own obstetrician, covered by her private medical insurance.
On the eve of March 22nd Kylie is rushed to the Royal Women’s Hospital. When she is admitted she finds herself sharing a room with Marika. Both talk about the impending births and are taken to the labour ward at about the same time. In the early hours of the morning of March 23rd both Kylie and Marika give birth to healthy girls.
Later that day their doctors happen to visit them at the same time. After they leave the room one doctor asks the other: ‘Why is it that one of these girls is born into poverty and struggle and the other is not? What has happened to the great Aussie principle of the fair go?’
Finding The Facts
What are the facts about poverty and wealth in Australia? Is the gap between rich and poor in Australia really so great? Where can we find some facts and figures? ACOSS (The Australian Council of Social Service) is a significant organisation in the social welfare debate within Australia. A poverty fact sheet released by ACOSS indicates that two million people are living in relative poverty (that is their income is less than 50% of the average disposable income) in Australia.
St Vincent De Paul Society
In May 2001, the St Vincent De Paul Society released the findings of their research into poverty in Australia and also found that poverty was on the increase. The full report, entitled Two Australias: Poverty in the Land of Plenty, comments on domestic issues of poverty and the impact of globalisation. It also contains a number of recommendations.
Brotherhood of St Laurence
The National Coalition Against Poverty (NCAP) is an Australian organisation aiming to promote community action in the eradication of poverty. This site contains a number of splendid articles produced by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, with clear information and facts relating to poverty, poverty-line theories, income support, unemployment and child poverty .
Global Education Network
The Commonwealth of Australia, under the Global Education Network also has an exemplary site on poverty. It is specifically designed for teachers and students in secondary schools. It contains detailed poverty analysis by country, investigates global dimensions of poverty and a range of resources. What is particularly helpful is that the site includess teaching material and student activities.
- Why is poverty on the increase in a wealthy developed country like Australia?
- What is the impact of poverty on families?
- Why are some people more likely to be poor than others?
- What are governments and organisations doing about poverty levels?
- Is poverty a national priority in Australia? If not, should it be?
One of the most frustrating aspects of the gap opening up between rich and poor in a particular society is that it is impossible for individuals, either rich or poor, to redress the imbalance. Obviously Kylie and Jason are trying their hardest to get on and provide for their new little one and Marika and Sam feel for their new friends and wish there was some way in which all members of Australian society could participate more equally in its advantages. They want a ‘fair go’ for a couple they can see have done nothing to deserve the difficulties in which they find themselves.
However, individually we can do little to solve such problems. It is the task of national and global policy makers to bring about structural and economic change, and this is an intensely complicated business. Ever since the emergence of industrial societies in the West, thinkers in economics and politics have been coming up with ideas and theories about the distribution of wealth that would be to the advantage of the greatest numbers. For a very brief and really easy-to-understand history of some of these ideas look at Economic Theories on the FRBSF site.
Most people have heard of the two most significant theories which underlie so much of the economic and political history of the modern world. These are of course capitalism and socialism. Ideas from both of these approaches to the organisation of wealth characterise the Australian scene. While economic life in Australia is organised fundamentally around the principle of free enterprise and private ownership of means of wealth, ideas about the state’s responsibility for the well being and prospering of all its citizens are vital too. A short discussion points out some of the ‘pros and cons’ of the free enterprise system.
Finally, a slide show presentation produced by the University of Illinois for beginning students in social welfare provides an ‘Introduction to Social Welfare’ which is broad enough to be helpful in an Australian context too, and an article on ABC Online on ‘Economic Rationalism’ tries to define that much discussed term.
- Can you define in your own words concepts like capitalism, the free market economy, socialism, social welfare, economic rationalism, the welfare state, etc., and could you cite some advantages and disadvantages of these approaches to political and economic organisation?
- Australia has free health assistance (Medicare), free education (public school system), aged pension, disability pensions, minimum wage, public housing provision, unemployment benefits, family benefits etc. Is this enough to maintain balance between wealth and poverty?
- Should governments intervene to regulate the economy when people are suffering?
- What other ways are there of regulating the allocation of wealth?
Exploring Sacred Texts
The opening words of Psalm 24, ‘The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,’ establish the biblical view that ownership of the earth and its riches belongs to no individual, nation or corporation but is a gift to all humankind from God. This means that all human beings have a right to a share in its wealth and to obtain a livelihood from it. ‘If the earth is indeed the Lord’s, then it is no longer a question of how much of the Lord’s do I get to keep in a world in which 800 million people are barely able to survive’ (Tom Sine) but a question of how to live ethically in accordance with God’s will.
‘And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8). This brief verse summarises the teaching of the Judaeo–Christian approach to right living. It is developed consistently throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, especially in the prophetic writings and in the preaching and parables of Jesus. A fine reflection on Micah’s message relating his voice to the voice of a 20th century visionary Jean Vanier is on ‘Biblical Justice Consultancy’. (From here navigate to ‘Select from Past Articles’ and choose Micah, Jean Vanier.) Parts of this reflection would be very helpful in preparing prayer to accompany this unit of study.
The Church Community
The Bible on the Poor is an American site which displays a comprehensive list of texts which address the gulf between rich and poor and indicate the biblical emphasis on supporting those in need. It is interspersed with questions for reflection and discussion. Another really valuable site for discovering the biblical attitude to wealth and poverty is provided by an episcopal parish, St John in the Wilderness. It concludes with a series of discussion points about the themes it identifies in the biblical texts.
An article entitled ‘Who is Poor in the New Testament?’ by Jerome H. Neyrey S.J. provides interesting background on poverty and the poor in the the time of Jesus.
The earliest Christian communities took very seriously the obligation of sharing all they had. Read Acts 2:42–47 and Acts 4.32–35. The Christian scriptures ‘bear the promise of a new age in which all people can possess everything equally’. For early Christians, the radical sharing of property and possessions ranked with faithfulness to the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread and shared prayer as a pre-eminent sign of being followers of Christ.
- What relevance have the biblical texts for the present day when social conditions are so very different?
- Why do the Judeo-Christian scriptures always speak of God taking a stand on behalf of the poor, the hungry, widows, orphans and strangers and so on? What implication does this preference of God have for Marika and Sam and all those who are well-off?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
The Church Fathers
The Fathers of the Church continued the emphasis on sharing which was so characteristic of the first communities. Like the prophets of Israel, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose and other leaders of the ancient Church were outspoken in their protests against greed, selfishness and exploitation. ‘Let us not devote our efforts to accumulating wealth at all costs. Let us consider ways of administering it properly and helping the needy and let us not luxuriate in what remains and cannot be transferred’ (John Chrysostom 347–407). .
Social Tradition of the Church
Thinking on the relationship between wealth and poverty has been to the fore of Christian thought down to our own times, and the preference for service of the poor is exemplified in the lives of countless holy men and women. An excellent historical essay which traces the social tradition of the Church from its roots in the Old Testament to its present stance is entitled ‘Wealth Creation within the Social Tradition’ by Robert Kennedy. Its basic premise is that abundance and prosperity are indeed good things willed by God, but for all and not just for some.
The Church Today
Today’s Church vigorously continues this traditional teaching. A very brief but helpful outline entitled ‘A Catholic Framework for Economic Life’ is a good short summary of the Church’s present approach to economic justice. Extracts from papal documents on Free Markets and Capitalism and workers’ rights together with an outline of Catholic Social Teaching will help you understand the Church’s teaching on the relationship between labour and capital.
A longer article, Crucified between Two Thieves: Catholic Social Teaching vs. Right and Left by Anthony Basile, provides a critique, from the point of view of Catholic social teaching, of some of the economic theories you have read about in ‘Broadening Perspectives’.
Closer to home the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council have produced a ‘Position Paper on Unemployment’ which sets out a response to unemployment in the Australian context while a reflection on the Australian Bishops Conference statement (1992) ‘Common Wealth for the Common Good’ looks at what has and has not changed in the 10 years since the issuing of that document and concludes with an expanded version of the Lord’s Prayer.
- Why has the Catholic Church concerned itself so strongly with social and economic justice?
- What yardstick does the Church use to determine the morality of social and economic systems?
- St Ambrose said that in giving to the poor we are simply returning to them what is rightfully theirs because the earth is common property. What do you think of his point of view?
- Is generosity to the poor sufficient or is the Church obliged to work for a change in any social order which produces poverty? Explain your response.
- According to Catholic social teaching, what steps could Marika and Sam take to bring about a fairer society for their new friends Kylie and Jason?
Respecting Other World Views
An article entitled Shavuot explains some thing of the Jewish notion of dignity and sustainability while ‘Judaism’s Encounter with Greed’ by Dr Meir Tamari is a quintessentially Jewish reflection on the way in which human greed and refusal to share becomes idolatry.
In an overview article, ‘Religion and Economic Justice’, Asghar Ali Engineer surveys the teachings of the three monotheistic faiths on economic justice and pays particular attention to Islamic insights. Islam and Debt outlines fundamental Islamic attitudes to wealth and poverty and justice while an article entitled Islamic Economics, Politics and Prosperity provides an insight into the religious basis of Islamic economics.
‘Buddhism and Economic Justice’ is a brief introduction to Buddhist morality, especially as it affects right living and social and economic conditions. Another site explores the Theory of Karma and its implications for a balanced society. ‘Buddhism and Nonviolent Global Problem-Solving’ sets out the Buddhist response to five pressing global problems, the second of which is economic justice.
Aboriginal Australians have a highly developed sense of responsibility for kinfolk and an approach to the land which views it as a spiritual reality rather than an economic commodity. A Radio National Briefingexplores the controversial views of Noel Pearson while a different opinion is provided by Lowitya O’Donaghue.
- Which religious traditions have articulated their social and economic ethic most clearly, and why might this be so?
- Use the Circle of Viewpoints thinking routine to explore the reasons why the various religious traditions place a greater or lesser importance on social and economic teaching.
Examining Personal Experience
What experiences of poverty and need have you or your family known directly or indirectly?
In what ways have you/they coped?
In what ways have you/they been disadvantaged?
How was this cycle broken or is it continuing?
Have experiences of poverty or need in the past or present influenced how you or your family feel about economic and political issues?
Has your family’s religious tradition had any effect on how you think about or respond to the problem of poverty?
Articulate a response.
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience.
Articulate your own response.