Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Don't hate Pru Goward, she's just the messenger

Simon Cowan

22 October 2021 | Canberra Times

As we emerge from the highly unusual circumstances of the pandemic, with its shutdowns and massive government spending, there will be increased focus on those left in entrenched poverty.

Activists will push for all the focus to be reforming (and expanding) the tax and welfare system. Yet it is important we don’t ignore the contributions of poor choices and individual behaviour to enduring and intergenerational poverty.

Pru Goward was digitally pilloried this week for her piece on the ‘underclass’. The Guardian cited a number of respondents who called her piece ‘troubling’, ‘concerning’, ‘sneering’, ‘distressing’. She was accused of engaging in ‘abuse’.

Goward was accused of treating all low-income people with contempt. Yet it is actually her critics who are lumping all poor people together: Goward specifically — and importantly — distinguishes between the poor and the underclass.

Many, especially activists laser focused on battling the ‘system’, prefer to pretend this later group doesn’t exist.

It is true that many people experience income poverty at some point in their lives. Most Australians have significant movement in their income level over time, and their experiences of poverty are temporary.

The Productivity Commission’s study on inequality noted ‘nine per cent spent time in both the top and the bottom income decile’ during the 16 years of observations.

Of greater concern is the group of around 700,000 people that the Productivity Commission found had been living in income poverty continuously for at least four years. Yet, even this group should not be labelled the underclass.

For example, disability and illness can lead to enduring poverty. The solutions to that problem are complex and important in their own right.

But that doesn’t negate the existence of a group of people who experience entrenched poverty largely because of their own poor choices or behaviour. This group often has a hostile attitude to any suggestion that their circumstances are their own fault.

They find it hard to get or keep a job because of addiction issues or problems of anti-social behaviour.

Many struggle with impulse control, strongly preferring immediate gratification over any longer-term planning. As such, when they get a job or otherwise access large sums of money, they tend to spend it as quickly as possible — often on frivolous things.

Shows like Struggle Street in Australia or Benefits Street in the UK tend to highlight this kind of poverty.

Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, highlighted a disturbing growth of the underclass in the United States, particularly in formerly suburban and regional areas where the dominant business or industry had declined.

Underclass relationships tend to be volatile: both in terms of intimate partner violence but also impermanence. Some men are deadbeat dads, often to multiple women. Some women have multiple kids to different fathers, who are rarely involved with the children financially or emotionally.

Most members of the underclass will not exit poverty without addressing the specific, personal factors that contribute to it. Their children are also far less likely to rise out of poverty.

As the Productivity Commission noted, the risks of enduring poverty “are particularly elevated for children living in jobless households, which is a group that has stood out among the multiple measures of inequality and disadvantage.”

These dysfunctional families are vastly overrepresented in the welfare and child protection systems, and this is where Goward — who was Minister responsible for the department now called Family and Community Services — actually has some direct experience.

Those on the other side of the debate are welcome to disagree with Goward, but it would be wrong to dismiss her as someone who has no idea what she is talking about.

She shepherded through some tough reforms promoting adoption for children at risk of neglect and abuse. For a long time, the child-protection system has focused on family reunion as the ultimate goal, when in fact the ultimate goal should always have been the protection of children.

There are tens of thousands of vulnerable kids in the out-of-home care system, many of them from underclass families. Many of those kids will bounce around from care placement to care placement, until they ‘graduate’ to homelessness or the criminal justice system.

As my former colleague Dr Jeremy Sammut argued for years, for some children, especially some underclass children experiencing significant abuse and neglect, the best thing to do is to permanently remove them from their dangerous family situation and adopt them into a loving family.

Goward pushed for this approach despite the significant opposition from activists of the same type who are criticising her now. NSW has begun to see success in this strategy, with more than 150 adoptions last year, yet the other states continue to effectively do nothing about adoption from care.

This extends beyond adoption, however. As another former colleague, Trisha Jha, argued, far more research and focus should be put on interventions that actually significantly mitigate the impact of childhood disadvantage.

JD Vance, in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, revealed both the despair of the underclass, and the potential for personalised intervention to be successful.

Removing people from the system should be the goal but there is disappointing resistance to evidence based strategies. Some prefer universal system-level changes, usually based on highly redistributive taxation. Others promote ‘solutions’ that basically boil down to spending ever more money chasing fashionable, progressive fads.

In part, it is this opposition that provoked the sheer uniformity and extent of the negative response to Goward’s article. Astute observers should be tipped off that something else is going on here.

Goward is challenging a central element of the anti-poverty activists’ platform. Liz Allen’s oped in response to Goward states it clearly: “disadvantage isn’t due to poor personal choices, but rather due to the structural mechanisms keeping people down.”

But this simply isn’t universally true. Many people are poor because of bad luck — and some are poor because of failures in the system — but for others, bad personal decisions and circumstances have contributed to, or even caused, their poverty. They will not exit poverty without targeted intervention.

The point is not to condemn or stigmatise either the poor or the underclass. However, refusing to acknowledge, or misdiagnosing, the factors that contribute to poverty makes addressing the issues of long-term unemployment, and entrenched poverty, much harder.

For some, it is not the system that has to change, it is their choices and attitudes.

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