FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Economic Inequality is a Wound on our Nation: Can It be Healed?

Jul 17, 2016


The wash up from the Federal election echoes that from after the Brexit vote in the UK – voter disenchantment and protest.

Commentators suggest this comes from electorates where the “old economy” still holds sway. Where jobs are tenuous and basic concerns on health and education are front of mind.

Others say that the two major parties are too similar and appear unresponsive to the concerns of those who are struggling to keep up with the demands of a “globalised economy” or who have completely missed out on its benefits.

As political parties take stock and others seek to understand the current state of flux in the electorate, the tradition of Catholic social thought does have something useful to add. Put simply, as the Australian Bishops did prior to the election, Catholic inspired advocacy is to first and foremost seek the promotion of the common good and human dignity.

Too often these terms can roll off the tongue as an almost pat response to public policy matters. However, in reality they require a serious analysis of the ways in which individuals and even communities are excluded from the widely accepted fundamental components of a decent life – quality health care, a good education, employment opportunities and a sense of community, to name a few.

Commonly this type of debate quickly reverts to two very significant issues – poverty and economic inequality. While many people are under the impression that these two issues essentiality describe the same problem, they do not. And so by trying to address one without the other, large parts of our community will continue to miss out.

Too often, poverty in Australia is seen as a mere description of an individual’s situation – they don’t have enough money, food, or adequate housing. Poverty is thus often viewed as something that could be more or less alleviated if they were to change their own circumstances – if they re-educated, got a job, moved to a different location.

This is fundamentally different to the idea of economic inequality where party political and largely partisan decisions have resulted in some parts of our nation being better off than other parts in a variety of different ways. They might have better health care, better schools, better child care and the like.

This distinction is very important and without a deeper understanding of the insidious social impact of economic inequality, it will be next to impossible to address the issues associated with poverty.

Pope Francis went to great length in his exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium, to convey the devastating impact of economic inequality on the lives of communities that are separated from those where the opportunities for decent and prosperous lives are so much better.

Access to essential infrastructure, health care, education, jobs, housing and social engagement are all determined by both economic circumstances and, to a very large extent, the decisions made by law-makers in State and Federal Parliaments. They are the ones that determine where our tax dollars are spent, who gets a new school, road, hospital, early childhood centre.

It’s because of the fallout from these decisions that local economies and, in turn, local communities fall into either the “haves” or the “have nots” basket. That’s how pockets and even regions of disadvantage become not, only the norm, but an accepted characteristic of life.

This insight is far from new. Benjamin Disraeli famously described England’s social economy in the nineteenth century as being like “two nations.” Others prefer descriptions such as “winners” and “losers” or, even more starkly, that poverty “has a postcode.” Regardless of the terminology, the reality is that economic inequality excludes people from the benefits of society and condemns them to lives of desperation and despair. And too often, it condemns them to lives of poverty.

Veteran political commentator Paul Kelly was quick out of the box after the recent federal budget, to cast the federal election as a fight about “fairness.” It seems that he was right. However, the Catholic notion of promoting the common good implies far more than fairness. It calls for policy that balances what at times can appear to be competing interests. And that balance will ultimately require a value judgement – a preference, if you like.

Pope Francis demonstrates this with a very stark example. In making his point that economic inequality prevents some people from accessing the subsistence for life itself, he indicates that we run the risk of structuring a society where some are excluded even from our very concern for them. As the Pope says, “how can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Clearly the Pope is signalling that the impact of economic inequality is far deeper than most of us are daily aware. Caught up in our lives and the way in which we are negotiating the opportunities to progress and prosper, we become blind to – or worse, removed from – the plight of others.

It is common for our political discourse to focus on the macro elements of the economy – what is happening to interest rates, share prices, unemployment and inflation. This matrix is then afforded a degree of fairness or otherwise. The Pope’s challenge is to go deeper. He calls for an analysis of the underlying moral, political and spiritual problems. It calls for a frank and open discussion about the type of community we strive to be and how its benefits should be distributed. It challenges our understanding of what a dignified human existence entails and what responsibilities we bear in order to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to prosper and flourish.

We must ask ourselves the question: if we agree that every life should be valued and lived with the same dignity as our own, then what are we doing to ensure this happens?

Catholic social teaching is not a comfortable or easily assimilated body of thought. But it is devastating in its focus on the inherent value and dignity of the human person. While acknowledging the ultimate scarcity of resources and the prudence required to allocate them justly, Catholic social teaching is forever calling people, especially the poor and impoverished, to be prized above other interests.

As we grapple with the practical challenges of delivering essential service – like health care – it bodes us well to reflect on the type of communities we are trying to build, support and encourage. Maybe we could ask whether our pattern of resource allocation and distribution does effectively build inclusiveness, expand opportunity and eradicate poverty, such that the death of an impoverished person really does become news.

Francis Sullivan is the CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. This article was first published in ABC: Religion and Ethics, 9 July 2016.



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