I read an amazing thread on Twitter today. It was written by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [@AOC on Twitter], the young woman who is making huge waves in US politics. As an Australian, I knew very little about her and just assumed that she was someone from the usual privileged classes. Wrong. Apparently, AOC used to be a waitress, living on a tiny wage and making ends meet via unpredictable ‘tips’.
That was surprise enough, but then she went on to say:
…1 of the greatest scams in US is the idea that financial struggle is due to “poor character.”
AOC was talking about the poor in America, but I suddenly understood why the Liberal National Party coalition here in Australia has no problem with the growing inequality in our country. It’s because they see the poor as ‘dolebludgers’, ‘leaners’, parasites on the body economic. Furthermore, they believe the undeserving poor are poor because they are too stupid, uneducated, or lazy to contribute to society. Helping these undeserving poor is seen as a terrible waste of valuable resources.
Those who stand for the LNP can heap disdain on the undeserving poor because they see themselves as the source of all prosperity. They see themselves as the ones who create the wealth that’s wasted on the undeserving poor. They see themselves as the good guys because…well, because they’re rich. Obvious, right?
This unquestioned equating of wealth with goodness and value is at the heart of the inequality in both the US and Australia. The rich deserve to be rich; the poor deserve to be poor. End of story.
But as AOC goes on to say in her thread, many of those living below the poverty line in the US actually work two or more jobs. They work just as hard, if not harder, than wealthy people, but the value of their work is so much less. And who determines the value of that work? The top 1% who own all the industries that generate the wealth.
To be honest, until today, I thought that most of the people who voted LNP did so because they lacked compassion, or were fundamentally selfish and greedy. Now I understand that it’s not so much a lack of compassion that’s at the heart of our inequality, it’s a lack of experience. It’s ignorance.
I can’t speak for the super rich, but I can speak for what used to be called the ‘middle class’. My parents sent me to a Catholic primary school and then on to a Catholic high school. They gave me piano lessons, and ballet lessons and even singing lessons. Books, ideas and music were an integral part of my life growing up. University was the natural next step.
But while my parents voted Liberal, I never did. There were two reasons for that. The first was the Catholic insistence on charity and compassion for those less well off than myself. The second was that despite their insistence on a good education for me, my parents were not rich. Dad was an engineer, but he was the sole bread winner. My parents bought a house but never bought a car because it was an unnecessary expense. They gave me the best education they could afford, but I grew up wearing op. shop clothes.
Seeing both sides of the poverty divide turned me into a Labor voter. Living on Newstart for 5 years because I was too old to be offered a job made me realise that anyone can drop below the poverty line. More importantly, it made me see that people without the benefits I had growing up can never rise above the poverty line.
That’s why AOC’s words had such a profound effect on me. Yes, there are a few, rare individuals who manage to make an absolute fortune through their own efforts, but very few [if any] do so without some of the benefits we all take for granted. Most wealthy people inherit a good start in life. Some wealthy people inherit so much wealth that they can play the ‘who’s the richest woman in the world?’ game. But none of these people are inherently ‘good’.
Wealth does not make anyone a good person, and poverty does not make anyone a ‘bludger’.
Until we can provide the kind of stable society that allows all children to grow up with equal opportunities, the economic divide will continue to grow. As it does, our democracies will turn into oligarchies and our countries will begin the slide into global ‘has beens’.
For those who are interested, I’ve taken screenshots of a couple of the tweets AOC posted:
If you’re already a Labor voter, then good for you. See you on the 18th of May!
If you’re a centrist of the Liberal persuasion, then please think about some of the assumptions you make about your world. Society works best when most of the members of that society belong to the ‘middle class’, just like you. If the middle class continues to be eroded then one day, your children or your children’s children may find themselves below the poverty, unable to better themselves because they can no longer afford the opportunities that make prosperity possible.
We all need to ‘walk a mile’ in the shoes of someone less prosperous than ourselves. Only then can we pat ourselves on the back for having ‘made it’, or not, as the case may be.