Vol 39 No 3
ENGAGING WITH CHANGE
STILL RELEVANT? Vatican II Forty Years On
ETHNIC MINISTRY IN AUSTRALIA: History, Present Realities and Future Options
THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE HEART: The EJ Cuskelly Memorial Lecture 2005
GOD SHOUTS TO US IN OUR PAIN
Dr Lawrence Cross, Australian Catholic University
TOPICAL COMMENT - TERRORISTS, MARTYRS AND SUICIDES: Consulting the Early
STATS AND STONES: Vinnies’ report from the trenches on the poverty wars
MERTON: A Modern Perspective
REVIEW: Jane Anderson, Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and
Their Intimate Friendships.
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
Stats and Stones: Vinnies’ report from the trenches on the poverty wars
On 30 May,
Vinnies released an Issues Paper entitled The Reality of Income Inequality.
It received fairly wide publicity in both the print and electronic media.
The Australian published an opinion piece critical of our Paper by Peter
Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies (10 June) to which The
Australian gave us the right of reply (15 June). Then followed two critical
articles by columnist, Christopher Pearson (18, 25 June).
The criticisms levelled at the Paper can be summed up as follows:
1. Income inequality has not grown significantly.
2. Our concern with inequality is out of step with Catholic social teaching.
3. We have exaggerated the number of people living in households with
an income of less than $400 a week.
4. Australia is generous in its provisions for low income Australians
compared toother similarcountries.
The Australian declined our request to publish our replies to the last
two articles that were critical of our position. I have included these
unpublished letters at the end of this article. Other unpublished letters
of support for the St Vincent de Paul Society are also made available
on our website (www.vinnies.org.au).
Toronto 1984. Pope John Paul II sums up his social teaching as follows:
The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich,
the rights of workers over the maximization of profits
When the St Vincent de Paul Society was founded, in Paris in 1833 by Frederic
Ozanam, a university student, it was in response to the needs of the poor.
In 1848 he wrote: ' I ask... that we should take responsibility for the
people who have too many needs and not enough rights
Twelve years before the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Ozanam was deploring
the increasing gap at the heart of society: ' The question agitating the
world today is
a social question. It is the struggle between those
who have nothing and those who have too much, it is a clash between wealth
and poverty, which is shaking the ground at our feet.'
* * * * *
IN MAY THIS YEAR we released an Issues Paper, The Reality of Income Inequality
in Australia. In this we reported ABS findings that income inequality
was widening significantly. The Centre for Independent Studies decided
that this could not be. Unable, however, to question the ABS data on income
inequality, they opted for the tactic of calling us names (1970s student
bed-sit revolutionaries, Marxists and radical egalitarians) and then asserting
that it was typical that no one else would criticise us because the social
policy arena is dominated by academics who are 'themselves all wedded
to the same radical, egalitarian political agenda that drove the Vinnies
We answered the CIS claims. As for the name-calling, we are more concerned
about public demonisation of the people who are blamed for their own poverty
Despite the astonishing claim (The Australian, 18 June) that we are 'out
of touch with poverty' our 40,000 members visited 1.8 million Australians
last year and provided financial assistance to the tune of $30.8 million.
As we visited these households our members consistently noted that people
were slipping away from the rest of society. We are not only talking here
of people in receipt of income support as their sole form of income, but
also families whose members are engaged in work in the lower end of the
highly casualised labour market. There are also, of course, the thousands
of Australians who are assisted in our various establishments and special
works. Interestingly, many of these people are actively omitted from the
data presented by the CIS. It is no wonder that the CIS claims that income
inequality is unimportant as a social issue. These people do not exist
for the CIS.
The teachings of the late Pope John Paul II were presented by The Australian's
columnist as if they were at odds with those of our founder Frederic Ozanam.
In fact, John Paul II thought so little of Ozanam's views on social justice
that he beatified him!
In neglecting the array of Catholic social justice teachings across the
centuries it is unsurprising that this columnist would dismiss the advocacy
of the St Vincent de Paul Society as being typical of the ' liberation
theology and Marxism [that] in one form or another have been the unabashed
paradigm for most of the local social justice operatives I've come across
since at least the mid-1970s.' (The Australian 25 June, 2005)
A very brief survey (see our website for a brief compendium on Catholic
Social Teachings) would have revealed the following:
In addition to the aforementioned words of Pope John Paul II we find the
following, which would, no doubt, be characterised by some as being of
a radical nature:
there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied
by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its
logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not
be bought or sold. (Centesimus Annus 1991.)
Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967) similarly noted:
'God intended the earth and everything in it for the use of all human
beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company
of charity, created goods should flow fairly to all.' (Vatican II, Gaudium
et Spes, 1965) All other rights, whatever they may be, including the rights
of property and free trade, are to be subordinated to this principle
Redirecting these rights back to their original purpose must be regarded
as an important and urgent social duty.
Pope Paul VI also quoted St Ambrose approvingly:
You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you
are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that
are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone,
not to the rich.
If these words seem radical to some it is only because they are faithful
to their scriptural roots which are planted in the soil of justice:
Search for justice,
Help the oppressed,
Do justice for the fatherless,
Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
Woe betide those who enact unjust laws and draft oppressive legislation,
depriving the poor of justice, robbing the weakest of my people of their
rights, plundering the widow and despoiling the fatherless! (Isaiah 10:1-3)
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53)
Vinnies is a charity. We will always be there, alongside the many wonderful
charitable organisations, large and small, to assist the people who have
been left out or pushed out of the economic prosperity that Australia
Charity, however, is no substitute for justice. The scriptures, the Church's
teaching and the tradition of the St Vincent de Paul Society are all unequivocal
in their call for us to pursue justice.
* * * *
In view of this imperative we produced our latest Issues Paper. This
is what we stated:
In terms of private incomes (a measure cited by the PM about which we
have reservations since it ignores those with no private incomes) it is
hardly a moderate increase in inequality when the lowest 10% get an increase
of $26 and the highest 10% get an increase of $762. On this measure, high
incomes rose more than the bottom incomes by almost 3000%. On any reading,
it is a mathematical illusion to suggest that the bottom 10% are the winners.
The ABS Survey of Income and Housing demonstrates that between 1994/5
and 2002/3, low incomes (real mean weekly income of $269) experienced
a 12% rise ($32.28); middle incomes (real mean weekly income of $449)
experienced a 14% rise ($62.86); and high incomes (real mean weekly income
of $975) experienced a 16% rise ($156.00).
In reality, the disposable household incomes of the people at the bottom
are not keeping pace with the costs of participating in society. This
becomes an issue for the government of the day.
Contrary to the claim that the movements in inequality are not statistically
significant, the ABS commentary states:
The statistically significant movements are the increase in the P90/P10
(the ratio between the top and bottom 10% of incomes) and the decline
in the share of the total income going to persons with low income.
The Gini coefficient is used to measure income inequality. At zero, everyone
has the same income. At 1.0 one person has all the income while everyone
else has nothing. Australia's Gini coefficient deteriorated from 0.296
in 1996/7 to 0.309 in 2002/3. When we presented this datum we were accused
by the CIS of wanting to highlight the deterioration by choosing the lowest
point (1996/7) rather than full data set available in the ABS publication.
The picture is actually quite interesting if one does look at the Gini
coefficients for 1994/5 and 1995/6. What they show is that inequality
was in decline prior to the election of the current Federal Government
in 1996 but that this trend was subsequently reversed. Since we are not
politically affiliated we had no wish to highlight this point. We simply
wished to draw public attention to the fact of growing income inequality
and how it impacts on the people we assist. We are happy, however, to
acknowledge this political dimension at the behest of the CIS.
As for the claim that social dislocation and crime have not resulted from
the failure to address the causes of poverty and inequality we direct
any sceptics to the work of Professor Vinson who was commissioned by Jesuit
Social Services to analyse the multiple layers of disadvantage in the
postcodes where this is most concentrated.
The ABS (No. 6523) reports 1.79 million (23.4%) households as having a
gross income of less than $400 per week. Using the only ABS multiplier
provided for gross income, 4.52 million people (23.4% of the total 19.3
million) live in households where the gross income of the household is
less than $400 per week.
The CIS challenges the use of this ABS multiplier and proposes the alternative
of using household composition data which is based on equivalised disposable
household income quintiles. This is a dubious technique, to say the least.
It involves transposing the household characteristics from one measure
over to another, qualitatively different measure. Worse, the quintiles
they use are themselves derived from household characteristics
they then use these quintiles to derive back the household characteristics
to use in their analysis!
CIS further challenges ABS statistics regarding the income levels of those
who are on lowest rungs. Their solution? To exclude them from the count;
to turf them out! Quite telling. Having done that, they make no adjustment
to the overall distribution of income, but keep all the adjustment in
the lowest quintile, a distortion very convenient to their argument.
The claim by the CIS that Australia is one of the most generous countries
in the world in terms of its social expenditure provisions is based on
OECD data that is very interesting but is ten years old. Latest OECD figures
(2001) on social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, place Australia 7th
from the bottom of 29 OECD countries, ahead of only Canada, the Slovak
Republic, Japan, USA, Ireland, and Mexico.
Citing the $87 billion a year spent on income support, as the CIS and
others do, implies that this sum is a generous hand-out to those at the
bottom. But we know from the NATSEM estimates that a massive 60% of the
population are net-gainers from welfare expenditure in its entirety. Yes,
some of these are poor, but the very large majority are not. This is hardly
evidence that the poor are doing fine. We have never, in any case, reduced
the problem of income inequality to one of welfare expenditure. We are
deeply concerned with the growth in the number of the working poor and
of the access for all Australians to education, housing, health, transport
As we stated in our Issues Paper:
If one starts from a position of income inequality, any addition in
inequality is an extension to the trend. Only a reduction of inequality
in absolute terms can start to reverse this trend.
As evidenced in the table below, people in all quintiles except the highest
have seen their share of total income decrease since 1995/96, those in
the lowest quintile having suffered most.
Jesus once told the parable of the rich man who does not see the poor
and suffering Lazarus at his gate (Lk 16:19-31). Pope John Paul II often
recalled this parable to warn the prosperous not to be blind to the great
poverty that exists beside great wealth.
The St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia is intent on drawing attention
to the fact that we do have a national problem with poverty and inequality.
In an increasingly user-pays society the impact of cost shifting from
the public purse to the private pocket is borne disproportionately by
the poor. This seriously limits their ability to participate socially
and economically. It closes the door on any opportunities they might have
had to improve their situation or the chances for their children.
As our National President, John Meahan, stated to the Senate Poverty Inquiry
in 2003: 'The poor are silenced but we will not be silenced.' Why? Because
the people we visit each year expect us to tell the leaders of this country
what we see with our own eyes.
We do not stop at highlighting the problem, however. We also advocate
a solution. Our solution is not to do away with enterprise or to attack
the people who have generated wealth, many of whom are extremely generous
and socially aware. Neither is it to provoke conflict and confrontation.
We have consistently advocated for a bipartisan national strategy to address
poverty and inequality in Australia, involving all levels of government,
the community sector, the business community, unions and all key stakeholders.
This has been dismissed by the CIS as an ideological fixation on centralised
planning. If anything, we actually don't go as far as Pope John Paul II
in Laborum Exercens, where he made the recommendation that 'society make
provision for overall planning' in the economic domain, not as a form
of centralized planning but as a means of ensuring that while private
enterprise flourishes, social justice for the marginalised is attained
The ABS data we have presented on income inequality are available for
all to see. These numbers are not left-wing. Neither are they right-wing.
In fact they don't have any wings. But they do have legs and that's why
there will always be some who are threatened by the truth they point to.
John Falzon is an advocate and researcher for the St Vincent
de Paul Society National Council. He lectures on the struct-ural causes
of social inequality and has worked in community development in public housing
Appendix: Unpublished Letters to the Editor of The Australian
20 June 2005
Christopher Pearson (Sat 19 June) seeks to denigrate the contribution
of the St Vincent de Paul Society to the debate about poverty and income
inequality in Australia by disparagingly claiming their views to be out
of date and for him not in accord with papal teachings.
Oddly, these supposedly anachronistic views include that the poor should
be able to have the same access to essential services, like health and
education, as the rest. Surely this indicates an advanced society. These
views have been strongly held by successive Popes and are central to the
foundations of Catholic teaching.
A lack of disposable income keeps many essential health services out of
reach of poorer Australians. Research indicates that impoverishment brings
poorer health, lower productivity and shorter life expectancy.
Demonising the advocates is not the challenge but keeping income inequality
and its insidious impacts at the forefront of the public policy debate
Chief Executive Officer
Catholic Health Australia
20 June 2005
Catholic Welfare Australia, through our 56 Member Organisations,
delivers a variety of services to all Australians in need and there is
nothing anachronistic about their understanding of life in Australian
society today. The message that we in the Catholic welfare sector are
trying to get across to governments, to academia and to those doing well as
a result of a strong Australian economyis that for all the figures
being presented on paper telling us how good life is meant to be for those
living at the bottom end of societythe figures do not reflect the
reality of life for the poor and disadvantaged among us!
Through our network we assist more than one million Australians a year
and our waiting lists are bulging. Our work is driven by the view that
every human being has a right to the basic necessities of lifefood,
shelter, clothing, a good job with a just wage etc. That we as a
society are all responsible for each other and must work for social
conditions which ensure that every person and every group in society is
able to meet their needs and realise their potential.
In strong economic times it is wrong that we have around 800,000 children
living in jobless households. It is wrong that 50% of Australians own
less than 10% of total household wealth whilst the nation's wealthiest 5%
of households account for almost two-thirds of wealth. Yes, we do believe
that the common wealth of the nation should be shared by allChristopher
Pearson (18-19/6, p. 18) would have also realised the significance
of this principle if he had chosen to refer to the full body of instructive
thought referred to as Catholic Social Teaching rather than selectively
extract from a document whichhe failed to mentionalso warns
about the excesses of Capitalism.
Mr Frank Quinlan
Catholic Welfare Australia