At a time when thousands of people throughout the country are taking to the streets to voice opposition towards a range of policies, it is timely to consider factors underpinning the growing discontent in Australia.
As a former economics professor and the current federal Labor MP for Fraser, Andrew Leigh’s credentials (including a PhD from Harvard) make him well placed to add to the broader national discussion on inequality and related issues.
Leigh’s book Battlers & Billionaires: The story of inequality in Australia is an insightful overview of inequality, its causes and the wide range of implications it has for our society as a whole.
Leigh stresses that inequality, notably affected by the increasing separation of people based on financial status, can have many detrimental outcomes on a society.
“Inequality can also affect political outcomes by shaping our notion of the common good,” Leigh writes.
“Democracy does not require perfect equality, but a strong democracy does depend on a society with enough equality that people ‘bump up’ against those who are different from them.
“Without a modicum of social mixing, shared interests can become subservient to self-interest. When the most affluent use different hospitals and schools, travel solely by private transport and live among those in their own income bracket, they may lose touch with the need for a strong safety net to protect the most disadvantaged.”
Elsewhere throughout the book, Leigh highlights disquieting data that illustrates the real costs of increasing wealth disparity.
“Poverty affects your life in myriad ways, from the very small to the very large,” he writes.
“For example if your household income exceeds $80,000, you’re likely to be missing an average of three teeth due to tooth decay. But if your household income is below $20,000, you’re likely to be missing ten teeth due to tooth decay. As a result, the poor have seven fewer teeth than the rich – an income gap that shows with every smile.”
As well as a fascinating dissection of historical trends of inequality in Australia, the book provides a comprehensive yet easily read analysis of inequality and the manner in which negative impacts can play out in any society.
Among the many troubling insights raised in the book is the notion, ascribed to other ‘settler’ countries such as the United States, that outdated perceptions are often more pervasive than actual facts.
It may surprise some readers that Leigh is able to make comparisons between America and Australia in terms of national perceptions of social mobility within the respective societies.
As many Americans may believe, indeed revel, in the notion of American exceptionalism and the American Dream, Australians may give undue credence to the long held mantras of being the ‘lucky country’ and land of the ‘fair go’.
For some Australians it may appear that the so-called ‘lucky country’ moniker is as true as it ever has been. However, data and research is increasingly suggesting otherwise – particularly for marginalised and disadvantaged communities.
Leigh stresses the need to improve our education system as this provides a concrete opportunity to reduce inequality over time. This long-term and pragmatic approach towards combating inequality is evidence in much of Leigh’s approach to understanding the real impacts on society.
“As a society, we need to recognise that there’s nothing equal about a race in which people start from different points. Equality of opportunity doesn’t mean making some competitors run with lead shoes, but it might mean buying a pair of runners for someone who can’t afford them.
“As technology advances, our education system has to do more – particularly for the most disadvantaged. Early intervention programs and a better education system are vital to reducing inequality.”
Leigh gives more than just food for thought for individuals concerned with the ‘fair go’ mantra so often ascribed to the Australian way of life.
He provides a startling account of inequality in Australia, while weaving a troubling narrative that gives little credence to a future where the lucky country remains just that if there is not significant change.
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