Referring to disadvantaged people, Pru Goward called out Australia’s underclass in a column in the Australian Financial Review as “damaged”, “lacking in trust and discipline”, and “highly self-interested”.
But people who experience disadvantage aren’t deficient, it comes down to a lack of opportunity.
Goward had a lot to say about the ills of the underclass – they’re fearsome, a costly drain, breeding in large numbers, and not all that nice – and she should know, as a former NSW Liberal minister for families and community services. You’d think she’d be well aware of such people. But unfortunately, a lot of what Goward had to say plays on disproven and harmful myths.
The labels used by Goward aren’t new to me. I’ve been called worse.
While it’s not entirely clear what exactly Goward meant using the term underclass, I can’t shake the feeling she was talking about people like me, to me, down to me. It’s a feeling I’ve come to know well.
I’ve lived through institutional child sexual abuse, institutionalisation, debilitating mental illness, homelessness, and poverty. I’m a high school dropout, teen mum, a proud Mount Druitt Tafe graduate, and now hold a PhD.
Throughout all my experiences of disadvantage, exchanges with government officials and service providers have sometimes been just as traumatic as (if not worse than) the traumas themselves. I describe my life as a constant fight for survival; people like me can only dream of thriving – we run just to stand still.
I’ve often wondered, in my exchanges with those in positions of power or gatekeepers of support, whether they look at me differently, think I’m somehow deficient. It certainly feels that way, but I’ve always told myself it was in my head. People entrusted to care and support people like me surely wouldn’t see me as a drain? Goward’s column proved to me, in decrying the underclass, that people making policy do in fact see the less fortunate as lesser humans. And somehow less deserving.
Those in positions of power have created the situation in Australia where inequality is entrenched. Disadvantage isn’t due to poor personal choices, but rather due to the structural mechanisms keeping people down. Keeping people in their place. Those in power build social systems in their image, with people like them in mind. Anything different to their privileged viewpoint is problematic.
No child dreams of living in poverty, and the people living rough aren’t doing so out of choice. The opportunities for so many Australians are constrained by their birth and the socioeconomic means of their family.
We like to romanticise that Australia is a fair and egalitarian country, and that all it takes to succeed is to have a go. I can recall countless times I’ve attempted to have a go, to better my situation, but been prevented by the system built by Goward’s ilk. Though one time stands out.
I was experiencing severe mental illness and needed help, but also happened to be homeless. Mental illness is pretty common among homeless people. I managed to get into to see someone for help. The medical professional told me she couldn’t help me until I found somewhere to live. But I needed to be well enough to find somewhere to live. I’m convinced she saw me as filthy and undeserving of support. I just needed support, but the system only saw my disadvantage, and deemed them my fault. My potential wasn’t seen.
The idea no rich child has ever experienced mental illness is a nonsense. The difference between me and the more well-to-do is they had a family and economic safety net. I was alone, it was just me.
Goward now holds a distinguished role as a professor of social interventions and policy at Western Sydney University. Goward is reported as working on building evidence on “ground breaking and reliable advice on the effectiveness of programs designed for the early intervention and prevention of complex social problems in Australia”. This terrifies me. I’ve seen what early interventions can do when ill-informed best-intentions go horribly wrong.
As a teen mum I was pressured to give my much-wanted daughter up. Give her to another family to raise. Lose my only family because the state deemed me as someone at risk and likely to make poor choices. With the help of an advocate I kept my gorgeous girl.
Poverty, and severe deprivation, can result in what Goward might consider poor decisions. But not because of any personal deficiencies or badness. Having to constantly survive with little results in changes to cognition.
We’re not dumb, we’re poor and deprived of opportunities.
I now count myself lucky in life. At Tafe, educators supported me and granted me opportunities I’d never had. Those opportunities took me from the gutter to academia. And I’ll be forever grateful.
Goward and I agree on two things: I will do anything to survive (despite my lot in life) and I have a solid bullshit-meter. I might be damaged, but I am disciplined … and I vote.
Perhaps Goward is concerned of what the underclass could do, if given opportunities her birthright has granted without question.