Justice, Opportunity and Shared Wealth for all South Australians

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Poverty is not just a state of mind

Ross Womersley - Executive Director, SACOSS

AS part of preparing for SACOSS' activities for Antipoverty Week this year, we launched a web survey to learn more about how people understood poverty. This was one of the responses we received:

''Poverty is a state of mind, if someone wants to live in poverty then they will, if they don't then they will do their best to get out of it, seek help and support and access service providers to help them move beyond the bounds of poverty.''

But I wonder if poverty is ever simply a state of mind?

There is no doubt that poverty can and does have massive impacts on our health and wellbeing, on our opportunities to grow and develop, on our chances to get a good education, as well as on our capacity to master life skills and on our ability to access employment.

That's important because having a secure job that pays well is still likely to be one of the best ways for most of us to avoid poverty and, as our survey respondent identifies, effort and determination will inevitably play some role in accessing such opportunities.

However, all the determination in the world won't necessarily ensure you get the chance to be in the workforce. Especially if your experience of poverty extends over a long period and if you spend much of your early life in these circumstances.

I have no doubt the employees of Holden and connected car part manufacturers have been feeling very insecure lately about their jobs, with a decision about their future destined to be made elsewhere.

From the statistics we know that the longer you go without getting another job, the harder life becomes. Your finances get depleted, you get dispirited, the bills start mounting up, your relationships get tested, you feel increasingly less worthwhile, your health - especially your mental health - begins to suffer … and so it goes on.

The point is that poverty can very quickly find its way into our lives and the reasons may be way beyond our control. They may be, as the Holden example illustrates, simply because our economy is changing and the jobs that you are trained for disappear.

But it could also be that sickness or injury or caring responsibilities mean you can't do the job you used to do or you simply can't do the only jobs that are available.

SA already has a high level of unemployment as well as massive issue of under-employment. This is partly because there aren't all the jobs in our economy we need to go round and because apparently, rather than adding more workers to the workforce, those of us who do have full-time work are averaging more and more working hours.

If we then dig a bit deeper to where there might be new jobs opening up, we find these are mainly in areas that require high-level skillsets - not jobs that are generally easy to master and therefore readily available to people with limited qualifications or skills.

Now presented with this analysis most people would agree that it is largely these structural and economic issues that are the drivers behind unemployment today.

But then, in almost the same breath, we somehow seem to forget all of that and decide that really, unemployment and/or poverty must be because of something about the individual. It's because they don't want to work, they don't want to move to where the work is, and they don't want to develop their skills or commit to getting educated.

I wonder why? If it is just a matter of someone's state of mind that would be a simple.

It would also be pretty convenient because if that was all the problem was, that's all we'd need to fix.

First published: The Advertiser, 16 October 2013

Published Date: 
Wednesday, 16 October 2013