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Dear Friends,

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2017–18, Everyone’s Business: Developing an inclusive and sustainable economy, calls on all Australians to consider the lot of the most vulnerable groups in our community. They have been denied a fair share of wealth and opportunity over the course of Australia’s globally record-breaking quarter of a century of economic growth.

Australia’s economic performance has defended us against the worst of the Global Financial Crisis and resulted in one of the highest levels of average net worth per person. How could it be that poverty and hardship could have continued through the economic boom? The benefits of this growth have been spread unevenly, with the share of income and wealth accruing at far greater levels to the top 20 per cent of households than to the lowest 20 per cent.

The Bishops identify particularly vulnerable groups whose circumstances will not be addressed adequately without improved support and services as well as structural change in the economy’s operation to stop people falling through the system.

The growing ranks of workers in low-paid, insecure and intermittent employment is increasing, with relatively smaller increases in income through minimum wage decisions and the loss or reduction in basic entitlements such as weekend penalty rates. Women continue to fare worse than males, with lower average earnings, limited opportunities for promotion and over-representation in professions that are less well-paid.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ conservative estimate shows 730,000 people are unemployed. Around two thirds of people on Allowance payments are in relative poverty – the payment has not been increased in any substantial way since the mid-90s. There is a severe shortage of job vacancies relative to the number of jobseekers and the increasing focus of the Department of Human Services is on compliance and debt recovery.

Think of the housing crisis underway in Australia. Many middle-income families are experiencing housing stress in an over-inflated market. What hope is there for low-income groups to own their own home, let alone hold on to accommodation in the private rental market? Income support recipients, low-paid workers, asylum seekers without work rights and an emerging group of older renters without savings and on low fixed incomes are particularly vulnerable to hardship and the risk of homelessness.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are overrepresented on almost every indicator of disadvantage. Nine years into the Closing the Gap program, Australia is on track to meet only one of the seven targets set by the Council of Australian Governments. High imprisonment rates, low life expectancy rates and diminished economic opportunity in remote communities will remain unless social and economic policies are adequately funded and designed in close consultation with affected communities.

After a quarter of a century of economic growth, we continue to have the kind of debate we were having when Australia emerged from the recession of the early 1990s. How can we ensure a more just distribution of wealth and opportunity? How can we make sure the economy truly serves those already made vulnerable as the economy recovers and grows? What of governments’ responsibility to play a substantive role in regulating the economy for equity and properly serving citizens when markets fail society?

Some argue that poverty is not a major problem in Australia – that absolute poverty is small and that opportunities are there for those in relative poverty if they are given the incentive to enter the market place rather than simply increasing welfare spending and social services.

Where does this leave people who are long-term unemployed, homeless, impoverished and withdrawn from the market? So often we hear that the unemployed are not trying hard enough, that the homeless must move on and that remote Indigenous communities are ‘economically unviable’. A logic that focuses on the so-called failure of individuals’ behaviour without considering the failure of the market is exclusionary and ultimately not at the service of all society and its citizens.

It can be proven that single parent families are more likely to experience income poverty – so why shift thousands parenting payment recipients from pensions onto lower Newstart Allowance payments?

Where the number of jobseekers dramatically exceeds the number of vacancies – particularly in depressed employment markets – how will an increased compliance system with harsh penalties, drug testing and income management provide the required vacancies?

The issue of ‘welfare dependence’ would be a genuine problem if the market had not failed to deliver enough real opportunities. Is the ‘mutual obligation’ that has underpinned our welfare system for decades truly mutual? For example, where is the government acting with business and in its own right as part of a national job creation strategy to assist individuals and communities where the market has failed? If the idea is to reduce dependency by encouraging recipients from welfare to work, it might be worthwhile ensuring a reasonable number of vacancies are open to people in such communities.

Clearly, fellow citizens receiving income support have important personal responsibility – but it must be matched with the structural responsibility of government, business and other social partners if it is to be a mutual obligation capable of achieving economic inclusion and social development.

The failure of the old approach that promised a great trickling down of wealth and opportunity calls into question any strategy to intensify the same approach now.

The Catholic Bishops of Australia questioned this policy approach in 1992 when they launched the report on their national inquiry into the distribution of wealth – Common Wealth for the Common Good. A quarter of a century later, the Bishops are again calling for a new approach that prevents economic exclusion from the outset and engages all people as dignified, active contributors to sustainable and inclusive growth.

The 2017–18 Social Justice Statement, Everyone’s Business, will be launched on 7 September. Social Justice Sunday falls on 24 September. The Statement will be accompanied by prayer cards, a ‘ten steps’ leaflet, and a PowerPoint presentation that can be downloaded from the ACSJC website.

Any assistance you can give in spreading the word about Social Justice Sunday and the Bishops’ Statement would be greatly appreciated.

Visit the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council website for order forms and details about Social Justice Sunday.

John Ferguson
National Executive Officer

 

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