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text 2015-05-14 07:18
When poverty makes headlines
The Poverty Wars: Reconnecting Research with Reality - Peter Saunders

"It is difficult to imagine a bright future for a country that has closed its mind to the existence of poverty."

 

The Poverty Wars was published a decade ago and yet much of it still applies today. Many Australians prefer to turn a blind eye at the idea of poverty in this country, but since the airing of SBS documentary Struggle Street it's again being brought into the forefront of our attention.

 

However headlines like "sympathy quickly turns to revulsion... heavily-pregnant woman filmed puffing on a bong during the Struggle Street finale" (news.com.au) do little to encourage a fair debate, they really only serve as a platform for disgruntled readers to rage about where their tax money is being spent. And for those who didn't even watch the program to make assumptions based on lazy, sensationalist reporting. The real damage is being done not by SBS but by these superficial reports that take unfortunate instances out of context and completely leave out any meaningful social commentary, for the sake of eyeballs on their website. As Saunders explains in Poverty Wars;

 

"Unfortunately, the media rarely focuses on the realities of poverty or how best to give a voice to those in poverty. All too often, journalists prefer to highlight individual pathologies or aberrations in the name of a 'good story', reinforcing stereotypes and reaffirming prejudice and ignorance instead of raising legitimate issues about the measurement of poverty and questioning the validity of current measures."

 

I think the documentary was effective in exposing the problems faced by a particular cross-section of Australians that most of us prefer to ignore. At the very least it got us talking about those on the fringe of society; the people that shows like Today Tonight and A Current Affair have continually exploited over the years. Looking beyond the stereotypes, Struggle Street ignites debate about class divide and the need to address the problems disadvantaged Australians face; namely drug addiction, alcohol abuse and mental illness.

 

As much as we like to think that true poverty doesn't exist in Australia, a report by ACOSS last year claimed that there were 2.5 million Australians living below the poverty line. The documentary does not only shed light on the lives of poor Australians, it exposes the core problem - that disadvantage is inheritable.

 

"There's an underlying belief that (and this was supported by the Howard Government) the poor choose their own poverty. [But] there is a large body of evidence showing that the poor are not only financially worse off than others but also more likely to suffer greater levels of stress, are more prone to ill-health, more likely to be a victim of criminal activity and are generally less happy than the rest of the population." - Saunders

 

The series is unapologetically confronting at times, showing young pregnant woman Billie-Jo inhaling a makeshift bong - an image that sparked disgust and outrage on social media. Viewers were quick to judge and condemn her, but it was also mentioned in the documentary that Billie-Jo was a methadone baby, she was literally born an addict. This should be a wake up call, because this is happening, and not just in Mt Druitt but all around Australia where entrenched disadvantage exists. According to the report by the Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA), "children who grow up in a home with entrenched disadvantage are more likely to graduate to a lifetime of disadvantage." This research draws attention to a cycle that is very difficult to break. Education gaps, drug abuse and mental health are risk factors of chronic poverty and they're responsible for the social exclusion these people have faced for the majority of their lives. They face the most disadvantage and barriers to fully participating in society.

 

One thing is true; the program doesn't paint a flattering portrait of the lives of these people. But generational poverty and the social problems associated with it aren't flattering. There is a difference between being exploitative for the purposes of entertainment and exposing the truth that many of us don't want to hear. I did not feel that the people of Mt Druitt were demonised, they were just regular Aussies with the kind of struggles most of us don't have to deal with. Struggles that didn't even begin with them.

 

You can read the full report here.

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