Giving Working Families What They Deserve

"The phrase is suddenly everywhere", said the New York Times’ Katharine Seelye. It was 2000 and Al Gore was running for president. In his acceptance speech, Gore used the phrase ‘working families’ at least eight times. In Australia, Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd seem equally keen on the phrase. Conveniently, it seems to include just about everyone who makes a living from wages, has children and doesn’t consider themselves rich.

The trouble is, almost nobody considers themselves rich — including most rich people. A 1999 survey by the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) found that few of those whose family incomes put them in the top 20% realised how well off they were. The SPRC’s Peter Saunders reported that, "most of these people think that many other families have higher incomes than they do, not lower incomes (as they in fact do)."

It seems that even high income Australians struggle to make ends meet. In 2002 Clive Hamilton reported that "more than a quarter of the wealthiest households in Australia believe that they spend nearly all of their money on the basic necessities of life". Overall, 62% of Australians believed that they could not afford to buy everything they really needed.

A similar pattern emerged in the United States. According to the New York Times’ Louis Uchitelle, Gore’s ‘working families’ rhetoric pointed to "a central fact of American life" — that most of the America’s 72 million families did not feel that they were able to make ends meet:

No one argues that middle-income families cannot put food on the table, pay the mortgage, own a car or two, take a modest vacation. What stresses them, sociologists and economist say, are the other outlays of middle-class life: new clothes, child care, lessons for the children, restaurants, movies, home decoration, computers, big-screen television sets, stereo systems, Christmas gifts, and saving for college and retirement.

As sociologist, Barrie Thorne, explains, "’Working families’ is a code phrase with a variety of meanings, and one is middle-class people trying to live only on wages, not earnings from investments … They can’t do it and they feel nonaffluent and not adequately compensated for the number of hours they must work to make ends meet.”

In a 2000 survey, more than half of Americans reported that they were being paid less than they deserved. No wonder so many of them warmed to the idea of a ‘working families’ tax cut and some extra government help. After all, they deserved it didn’t they?

Reason Magazine’s Michael Lynch pointed to the contradiction inherent in Gore’s ‘working families’ message. "Ironically," he says, "those most receptive to the ‘working families’ message may be those who arouse Gore’s ire because of their relative wealth."

Losing to George W Bush meant that Gore never had to face the consequences of this contradiction. But Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan are in a different position — they have a budget to deliver. Imagine if Swan really did give working families a Robin Hood budget.

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Thinking in old ways
Thinking in old ways
13 years ago

There are two messages that really stand out in the table in the Peter Saunders article.

The first is that most people appear to think that the income distribution is much more extreme than it is. That is most people think they are clustered a little below the middle of the income distribution – and that almost none of them think they are at the extremes (with these extremes presumably being populated in their minds by phantom armies of the rich and poor).

The second is that as a whole everyone thinks there is an enormous group of rich people who really should be able to pay more taxes – so that it is quite easy for the rest of us to expect government to give us more.

It really is incredible that only 5% or so of the population seem to think that they are in the top 30% of income earners.

As published by the ATO the 90th percentile tax payer earned around $78,000 in 2004-05, the 95th percentile earned $97,000 and the 99th $200,000.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Overall, 62% of Australians believed that they could not afford to buy everything they really needed.

I’m shocked it’s actually this low. I really would have thought this figure would be around 99.5%.

Caroline
13 years ago

I heard Wayne Swan referring to ‘working Australians’ this morning. Some improvement on ‘working families’. However, it is still excludes many people. Why oh why can they not just say ‘all Australians’ and eliminate the risk of excluding large swathes of the population and engendering their ire?

observa
observa
13 years ago

Perhaps these working families know deep down they are now irredeemably indebted families in their twilight, now the McMansion prices have stalled.
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/JE02Dj05.html
Give us this day our funny money surpluses Wayne!

observa
observa
13 years ago

Maybe those big funny money surpluses was what finally killed Johnny and Pete in the end and now it’s all Wayne’s World.

the Preacher
the Preacher
13 years ago

Working families do nor need any Government support however needy families do!

wilful
wilful
13 years ago

Listening to the government last night about the asset testing of the baby bonus, Swannie actually used the term ‘rich people’. Turned to my (pregnant) missus and asked if we were rich. Dunno, don’t feel it. But hopefully above the means test limit for the absurd ‘policy’.

Jules
Jules
13 years ago

The “working families” tag excludes and marginalises so many of us.

Graham Bell
Graham Bell
13 years ago

Everyone:

As I write this, I am watching SBS-TV “Insight” [rebroadcast Friday 1:30pm] on whether wages cover the cost of living; discussion also covered credit being used to buy essentials [such as groceries] and, of course, it also covered predatory lending. [That reminded me of an argument I had with a scoffer, Fyodor, on Club Troppo a few months back; hope he/she took my suggestion to get some real world experience of poverty by doing voluntary work for StVincentdePaul Society or Salvation Army].

Poverty now affects more than just the stereotypical drunks and dropkicks or the purchasers of 3-Metre plasma TVs and $500 Christmas toys, it is now hitting Working Families hard. Let’s not forget that impoverished – and in some cases, dispossesed – working families are fertile ground for all sorts of extremists, religious manipulators and political nasties to grow and prosper.

What irony. The “Insight” program on the poverty of working families will be followed by a documentary on Hamas. Someone in Programming at SBS-TV has a grim sense of humour