The undeserving poor

One of the many things I like about Professor Bunyip is his utter contempt for anything remotely resembling politically correct sentiments. His latest post is a typical example:

The Professor gave up on the disadvantaged some years ago, having finally accepted Jesus’ admonition that “ye have the poor with you always”. If no less an authority than the alleged Messiah comes to that conclusion, what point can there be in a humble Bunyip continuing to hope that the disinterested third parties who redirect our tax dollars to the intoxicated, indolent, and incompetent will ever be able to effect curative outbreaks of sobriety, industry, and intelligence?

I confess that Bunyip’s outburst resonates with many of my own experiences over the years, not only with indigenous Australians, whose history of oppression, dispossession and abuse at the hands of the Balanda (white man) has mostly been supplanted a considerable time ago by self-induced factors including endemic alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse, and poor nutrition and hygeine.

After I first graduated in law way back in the 1970s, I experienced a momentary outbreak of bleeding heart altruism and worked briefly for a NSW government agency dispensing social welfare services to the (mostly) undeserving poor. I soon re-embraced rugged enlightened self-interest when I discovered that welfare families almost invariably had brand new videos, colour TVs and houses full of new-ish furniture courtesy of St Vincent de Paul, Smith Family and Waltons’ open door hire purchase credit policy. They somehow always managed to persuade some government or charitable organisation social worker to approve an emergency cash grant for food when their money ran out towards the end of the pension fortnight, having been consumed by Waltons repayments and copious quantities of drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile I was scraping and saving to pay off and renovate my first house and making do with an old black and white TV and furniture bought at garage sales to save money.

I’m not quite as unsympathetic as the good Professor, however, because I accept that these behavioural characteristics of the chronically poverty-stricken are (as with Aborigines) partially a consequence of a generational cycle of poverty, violence, poor education and so on. It’s much harder for children from a welfare family to break out of the cycle of poverty than for a child of middle class parents (as I was). Nevertheless, the standard bleeding heart left-ish approach towards poverty and disadvantage simply reinforces that cycle, by making excuses for chronically irresponsible choices and shielding people from the consequences of those choices. At the risk of provoking a bilious attack in Professor Bunyip, we badly need a large injection of what Phillip Adams’ mate John Embling calls “tough love”.

What puzzled me about the Bunyip’s outburst on the undeserving poor, however, was his passing sideswipe at Father Frank Brennan SJ as a proponent of “godless Christianity”. I can certainly understand the Professor seeing Father Frank as anything but a political ally: his views are a long way to the left of the Bunyip, and a fair bit to the left of my own on some issues (not least appropriate asylum seeker policies). But why this should lead to a conclusion that Father Frank is “godless” is beyond me. Is godliness confined to those with right wing views? Is opposition to Howard government policies tantamont to ungodliness?

Father Frank is certainly at the liberal end of Catholic belief, but he’s not in any sense a Catholic equivalent of the “modernist” Anglicans among the Yes Prime Minister candidates for the bishopric of Bury St Edmonds. I come of a lapsed Catholic background, but Father Frank was instrumental in my reception back into the Church as a practising Catholic back in the 1980s. He also presided over the remarriage of Jenny and myself within the Church, after we were initially forced to marry in a civil ceremony because the conservative local priest in our hometown of Manly refused to marry us in the Church as a result of our having lived together “in sin” in Darwin for the preceding 12 months. Compassionate, socially-committed priests like Frank Frank Brennan exemplify Christ’s teaching far more faithfully than hateful, rigid conservatives like Cardinal George Pell.

I’ll never forget Father Frank’s classically Jesuitical response when I expressed reservations about re-embracing a Church that still espoused patently repugnant values like blanket opposition to birth control, homosexuality and so on. “Think of the Pope like the High Court,” Father Frank said. “A sort of ultimate court of appeal. You may regard some decisions as misconceived and wrong-headed, but we must have an authoritative structure to preserve the rule of law. And we know that the makeup of the Court will change in time.”

Update – Professor Bunyip posts a typically elegant, if unconvincing, response.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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James Russell
2022 years ago

Is godliness confined to those with right wing views?

Of course it is. In much the same way as it is apparently impossible for lefties to be patriots, there are probably quite a few people who would argue they cannot be religious either.

Stewart Kelly
Stewart Kelly
2022 years ago

The flip-side of the record is you can’t be conservative and compassionate. Both sides like pidgeon holing the other. Anyway if godliness is confined only to conservatives someone better tell Labor’s catholic support base.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

After all, both sides can be seriously sanctimonious.

Stalin
Stalin
2022 years ago

According to web site you linked to

Father Brennan said, “It is no surprise that Willie Virgile Brigitte, the Al Qaeda operative, came by plane with a tourist visa. He was never eligible for upstream disruption or mandatory detention. No terrorist has come by boat with wife and children and without a visa. Now is the time to scrutinise government’s rationale for treating boat people in such a discriminatory way, in the name of national security.”

David Tiley
2022 years ago

“intoxicated, indolent, and incompetent”… I wonder how many of Centrelink’s clients would be described as that?

I know people for whom welfare has been a destructive crutch, and I know of people who are at least second generation welfare dependent. And I know people whose attitude to education makes it very difficult for their children. “Whydja wanna do that? Think you’re better than us or sump’n?”

But I wouldn’t think that most of the people who receive government assistance in Australia would be like that. A whole lot come from families that have been disrupted by divorce, illness, retrenchment.. or are over forty and lost the industry they worked in.. etc etc etc. The same old economic casualty list. And a lot of people belong to the working poor, and/or are hunting for nonexistent jobs.

I hardly need to say all this – its a commonplace argument. But one of the big difficulties is that any decision to sort deserving from undeserving poor creates a persecutory and intrusive system that clubs the deserving poor to make sure they are not undeserving.

I think most people in the clutches of unemployment benefit at the moment would think it is a gratuitously unpleasant system, designed to push people into a work space which is no more than a fantasy of detached politicians and corrupted policy makers serving their masters. In which the intention of the thing is to both massage the figures, and to defuse unemployment as an issue.

There is an obvious world of difference between Ken and his clients, as he acknowledges. The new minted lawyer, hard working and disciplined who knows his efforts will be rewarded, across the desk from confused and powerless people who are never going to claw their way out of a hole.

Ken’s black and white teev was probably unwatched, while the colour sets of his clients were on all the time with a clutch of bored and aimless people in front of it. At least it gave them something to do..

There’s a doco around called “Kim, Harley and the Kids” about a very poor family. I’ve argued with people after watching it – they say these people are struggling to make ends meet, while I wish they would go out and get a job instead of lying around scamming the system. Just as Ken feels. But at the end of the day, the kids in that film are not being given the ghost of a chance. And when you reach back into people’s histories, they were flattened from the beginning by stuff I know I would not have survived.

But then I am more inclined to wonder why we believe that people who are destroying their children have such a right to keep them. And yes, I do believe in the stolen generations, and that vile things were done to black communities…

I hope my ramblings are modelling some of the complexities.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

I’m sure the professor made a typing error. He meant Godlike, not Godliness. :)

Jim
Jim
2022 years ago

I’m with David T (mostly) on this. Tony Abbott made a fairly unremarkable comment a couple of years ago – along the lines of not all poverty is a result of government failure – and was predictably excoriated by the PC crowd. It was however an undeniable,logical assessment. He was attacked for venturing such an insensitive opinion rather than for being inaccurate.
There are no doubt a number of free loaders or low expectation opportunists in the welfare system just as there are tax avoiders in business.
We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to either group but we probably have to accept that completely stamping such behaviour out will come at a very high cost to those who aren’t doing the wrong thing.
I knew a woman who had 5 children to 3 different men (none of whom stuck around for long) and received subsidised housing,welfare assistance,utilities discounts etc etc. Now she didn’t display much interest in working or contributing or accepting the hardships she suffered as consequences of HER behaviours – she blamed “Howard” for everything – but there is no way she could be fined or denied economic assistance without 5 innocent children suffering.
Similarly,I believe the vast majority of those on unemployment benefits for example would gladly take work if it was offered.
If it’s purely an economic argument,then the tax evaders should come first.

Peter Ness
Peter Ness
2022 years ago

David Tiley’s comments favouring the adoption of abused and neglected children ring true to me. I’ve always wondered about the guts of the adoptee parents to take these kids on, for we NEVER hear about their everyday heroism. But I guess that is because adoption is unfashionable, lest the left be bereft of a clutch of victims to use as propaganda.

And I am heartily sick of people citing poverty as a cause, not a symptom of ignorance, fear and an authoritarian mindset. If Brennan went after those vices, instead of whoever the media portrays as the villan in their news grabs, he would have a lot more respect.

Antony
Antony
2022 years ago

Hey guys,

Abused and neglected children should not be adopted out, never, ever. Don’t you realise that it would create yet another stolen generation?

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Which is why i added that remark about the stolen generations. The notion that parents have primacy of ownership over children which seems to underly our current “support the family” approach can both deliver kids to misery and neglect, absolve the government of responsibility, and avoid the dangers of censorious and prejudiced people deciding from the comfort of their narrow minded in-trays what is “decent” and “good” about other people’s lives. There’s plenty of examples where that is vile when it gets a hold.

But if you put the kids first – after the all the defensible principle of our family court system – then you have to run some policy of protecting kids from bad parents..

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

I’d suggest the most significant factor behind all these problems increasing, can be summed up in one sentence.
Tell people long and loudly enough they have rights, but no responsibilities, and that everyone else is to blame, then — surprise, surprise — they’ll believe us, and the socially incapable underclass we once were able to pride ourselves in not having, suddenly becomes our most important growth industry.

trackback
2022 years ago

systemic poverty

over at troppo armadillo theres an article entitled “the undeserving poor”. it describes disillusionment with the poor. some of the poor will always be with us. in my own personal experience, there are always going to be people that cant…

trackback
2022 years ago

systemic poverty

over at troppo armadillo theres an article entitled “the undeserving poor”. it describes disillusionment with the poor. some of the poor will always be with us. in my own personal experience, there are always going to be people that cant…