In 1994 I started working in community development in some of the large public housing estates around Sydney. There I learnt a valuable lesson: that everyone has a story. That might sound obvious. It is however the most obvious truths that sometimes need to be spoken.
Now is one of those times. On one hand we have a Government committed to the humiliating blanket imposition of compulsory income management on the basis of race and class. On the other hand we have a Leader of the Opposition who persists with the most offensive attitudes to our sisters and brothers who are doing it tough.
Everyone has a story. And they don't happen in limbo. They happen in the context of developing social and economic structures. Each person's story is a unique intersection of the personal and the political. Each intersection continues to change.
Tony Abbott's recent comments on poverty and homelessness reveal an inability to understand these intersections. If you don't know how intersections work you're sure to come a cropper!
The deeply offensive aspect of Abbott's comments is that he blames people for being left out or pushed out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Choices are constrained for those who have been systematically locked out of the nation's prosperity. There's not much choice between a rock and a hard place. But of course, such a world view lets governments off the hook. It denies the reality of the social.
When I was forced to engage with what was happening in people's lives I was able to see the bigger picture emerging. I found myself being completely re-educated on the causes of inequality and how these social relations intersected in the lives of the people who were pushed to the edges of society.
Every day the members of the St Vincent de Paul Society and many NGOs across Australia see and touch the Australian face of marginalisation. Many of us see this experience as a sacramental encounter. Many of us believe in the real presence of Christ in our disadvantaged and demonised sisters and brothers.
We are driven by the truth of what we see and touch. And the truth is that we, as a society, have within our means the ability to change the structures that cause or exacerbate poverty and exclusion. The question is whether we, as a nation, have the political will.
We continue to be subjected to social policies that mimic the paternalism exemplified in Margaret Thatcher's contention, 'there is no such thing as society'. Paternalism starts (and ends!) with a highly unequal relationship of power. It is described by Lawrence Mead, one of its leading US proponents, as 'the close supervision of the poor'.
The New Paternalism is a relatively recent version of this approach. The focus is on the supposed individual deficit rather than structural deficits. The very name bespeaks the manner in which people are objectified and treated like young children who have no capacity to make decisions or take control. Any decision imputed to them is roundly condemned by a moralising discourse from on high.
The New Paternalism is exemplified by such policies as compulsory income management or using the threat of financial penalties on sole parents or people in receipt of unemployment benefits.
The New Paternalism assumes that people are largely to blame for their own marginalisation; that people who are marginalised are naturally without power; that power naturally rests with those who deserve it; that those with power can, at best, use their power to bring about a change in the behaviour of those without power; and that the problems experienced by people who are marginalised are their own problems, but bleed into the 'mainstream' through increased costs, increased crime, loss of productivity, market constraints and disorder.
These assumptions are as pernicious as they are unproven. They lead to either treating people as if they are 'sick' (pathologisation) or as if they are morally bad (criminalisation). Being locked up often follows hot on the heels of being locked out.
Nothing good can come out of these approaches. They are cursed not only by their lack of compassion but also by their denial of justice. We should be listening to the people who are most oppressed by the structures that cause inequality and marginalisation. We are obliged to engage in bringing about the necessary social change.
The only lasting liberation is won collectively by the people who hunger for it, to paraphrase the Beatitude.
Jean-Paul Sartre once noted that no matter how terrible the situation a person finds themselves in, the impetus to seek change does not come automatically. Someone does not wake up one morning and decide that this is enough, that something must be done. Rather, you will do something about the situation only when you realise that an alternative is possible.
This must happen on a collective level if we are serious about creating genuine pathways out of homelessness and poverty. We must create the alternatives rather than condemning our own to be imprisoned in an oppressive status quo. More than this, we must have the courage to imagine the possible together if we are to build the kind of society where homelessness and exclusion are prevented in the first place.
Originally published at Eureka Street, click view for more information