What Australians think about poverty – and how it can change (part 1)

Photo by  Kari Shea  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Maiy Azize of Anglicare Australia explains how her recent study of social attitudes shows that Australians are surprisingly empathetic towards people in poverty - and how anti-poverty advocates can campaign and win.

Never before has Australia been so prosperous.

 Never before have we had so many resources and opportunities to reduce poverty.

 And never before has so much thought been dedicated to understanding the problems facing those in need.

 Yet many people have not enjoyed the benefits of prosperity. And debates continue to rage about whether inequality is a real problem. Even dedicated advocates don’t have a strategy to persuade and motivate the public about the need for change.

 There is a clear need to understand public attitudes to poverty. Understanding these attitudes, and the values that underlie them, is critical to changing the conversation. That’s why Anglicare Australia embarked on a landmark study to explore attitudes and how best to communicate with the public. The results might surprise anti-poverty advocates. It turns out that Australians are much more sympathetic to those in poverty than even they realise.

As part of the study, Anglicare Australia conducted a nationally representative survey with Ipsos. All of the groups we surveyed showed high levels of compassion towards people in poverty, and a belief that nobody should live in poverty. All demographic groups believed that we needed to do more to support people on government benefits, and that Australia should be a country that looks after people in need. Only a small minority disagreed with the idea that people experiencing poverty are the same as them.

So why have we not seen demands for action? And why, if public attitudes are so sympathetic, do so many of us believe that our fellow Australians as apathetic or even hostile to people in need? These questions are more relevant than ever as we digest the results of this weekend’s Federal Election. Our research has uncovered three key factors: two explored below, with one to be followed up in a subsequent post.

First, we are influenced by our perceptions of what other people think. As part of our study we investigated Common Cause, a framework based on compassionate values and selfish values. Research based on this framework shows that compassionate values are much more widely held. But the same research also shows that most people wrongly believe that their fellow citizens hold selfish values.

 This helps explain some of the results we encountered through the Anglicare Australia-Ipsos survey. Our study found that only a small minority of people (10 per cent) agreed with the notion that those who rely on government support deserve to live in poverty. A strong majority (78 per cent) rejected the statement. A greater number (79 per cent) agreed that anybody could find themselves experiencing poverty, with only 8 per cent disagreeing. This tells us that people understand the impact of circumstance, and believe that those who need help still deserve to live a dignified life.

But this reality doesn’t line up with our perceptions. Only half of those surveyed by Anglicare Australia agreed that Australians are sympathetic to those experiencing poverty, which underestimates the strong level of sympathy we found in the same survey. This gulf between perceptions and reality can have major implications – the same studies cited by Common Cause found that people who hold this inaccurate belief are much less likely to act on their own compassionate values.

 This myth influences how we relate to other people. How many of us have told our friends or family that we’re volunteering because it would be good for our career, perhaps thinking they wouldn’t understand our real motivations? Or explained moving into a more rewarding, lower-paid job by saying it will help us gain experience? This is probably driven by our false perception that other people are not as compassionate as we are. And it is this same perception that drives some anti-poverty activists to crouch their campaigns in the language of economics and self-interest instead of care and support. This only perpetuates the false notion that people are selfish.

 Breaking this cycle is crucial if we’re going to campaign and win. People are much less likely volunteer, sign a petition, make a donation, or even cast a vote if they believe that nobody is listening – or that nobody else cares. Seen in this light, the tendency to blame the public for casting a ‘bad’ vote or failing to demand action is wrong. Worse, it’s harmful. Anyone who hears this line is actually less likely to act on their compassionate values.

 The second factor shaping public debate is the design of our welfare system, which works against the people who depend on it most. We found that benefits become less popular as they become more targeted. Australia has one of the most targeted welfare systems in the world, and this plays a role in how we see the people who use it.

 The most popular aspects of Australia’s safety net are Medicare and the age pension. They are also the most universal. Everyone is eligible for a Medicare rebate, and all but the wealthiest retirees receive a pension. These have proven to be some of the hardest benefits to cut – the short-lived Medicare freeze was loathed by the public and has now been reversed. Proposals to raise the pension age were dumped after a public backlash, and the pension had a major boost in 2009.

 Meanwhile targeted payments, like Newstart and Youth Allowance, have stagnated. There has been a trend to push people off payments for single parents and people with disabilities. And Centrelink services are being automated in a way that is both extreme and sloppy, forcing people to correct robotised errors and lumping them with thousands of dollars in fake debt. 

 Put simply, it is easier to get away with this if you’re targeting a small group. Medicare users would never face this kind of treatment. There are just too many of us.

 This shows us that universalism guards against stigma. As Ben Spies-Butcher has argued, when more people get a benefit it becomes normalised, and that constituency becomes more politically powerful. Importantly, universalism also makes it harder to divide groups. People who use Medicare can’t be pitted against taxpayers because most of us are both. Former Treasurer Joe Hockey tested this approach and was punished for it. 

But these findings come with a red flag. The pension has been subject to more asset tests over the last twenty years. At the same time, concessions and tax breaks for wealthy retirees have grown. This means that wealthier retirees are now less likely to receive the pension, and all pensioners are losing clout in public debate (even though they remain a large majority). For now the pension remains popular, but who knows how it will be seen in years to come as fewer retirees are eligible. The election campaign may have given us a glimpse of what’s in store.

These findings also highlight a major tension for anti-poverty activists. Government rhetoric about scarcity has pushed much of the welfare sector away from supporting universal programs and towards benefits that are targeted to people at the margins of society. This may seem like a rational move – it makes sense to focus on those in greatest need. But the further we go down this road, the more vulnerable these people become to cuts and scapegoating.

That brings us to the third factor that shapes debate: language. Looking closely at how we use language can tell us a lot about how the debate on welfare has evolved. It also points us to how it can change.

The role of language in shaping debate will be explored in Part 2 of this post

Maiy Azize is the Director of Media and Communications at Anglicare Australia, and the author of ‘The Real Story: What Australians Think About Poverty and How We Shape the Debate’. It is available online at www.anglicare.asn.au/publications/state-of-the-family-report.