Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A cruel budget and a bleak future

In his budget speech, Joe Hockey said we all have to make a contribution. But when the contribution demanded from people destroys their lives, that's too high a price to pay. He said we need to stop thinking of self-interest and start thinking of the national interest. But it's not selfish to want to survive (and even prosper). And far from being in the national interest, these cuts will create a very bleak future for Australia. 

As every Australian school-child learns, European colonization of this country started with the transportation of convicts. At least some of those convicts were sent here for stealing because they had no other means of survival. The question I always ask myself when I look back at that history is would I steal in order to feed my family? The answer unequivocally is yes. It was purely a hypothetical question as I knew that would not happen in Australia. We had the safety nets in place to ensure it didn't. Well we used to. The latest budget has taken those safety nets away. 

Joe Hockey has announced that people under 30 will have to be unemployed for six months before receiving Newstart. Six months without money is a very long time. That's six months without being able to pay for rent, phone, internet, electricity, bus fares, petrol, food, clothes or even tampons. In six months, you can be thrown out of your home - in fact, you probably will be thrown out of your home if you can't pay rent. In six months, In six months, you can become severely depressed and suicidal - compounded by the fact you can't afford to go to a doctor and seek medical attention. In six months, your entire outlook can change, you can lose all hope and get stuck in a mindset that never goes away. Six months without money is enough to ruin a life. 

So what are these people meant to do for this six months? Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey's answer would be to find a job. But finding a job is actually a lot harder with no money. Imagine looking for a job when you can't afford a newspaper or the internet to apply for jobs (and yes, I know job seeker centres and the library offer free access to newspapers and internet, but these can also be hard to get to for some people without money for a bus.) Imagine looking for a job when you don't have a phone, address or easy access to your email for potential employers to contact you. Imagine applying for jobs when you have no car and/or no ability to afford petrol or bus fares (which not only affects your ability to get to job interviews, but your ability to get to a job once you find one). Imagine going to job interviews when you have no money for clothes, shoes, haircuts, razors to shave if you're a man or make-up (which is almost a necessity in some jobs) if you're a female. Imagine applying for jobs when your confidence is low and your depression is high (and it would take a very optimistic person for this not to occur after having no money for so long).

So if getting a job is made harder for them, what actually happens to these people. And what happens to Australia? As already alluded to, crime rates will probably go up. If people need to steak to eat, they will steal. The threat of jail will also not be as much of a deterrent to those with no roof over their head and no food on the table. Depression is likely to rise and this may very well lead to more suicides, as people cannot afford the treatment they need. There is likely to be more people suffering from health conditions that are made worse than they should be because people couldn't afford to seek early medical intervention. Charities are likely to be swamped by people - and may need to turn a lot of people away because they just don't have the resources to cope with the sudden influx. People are also more likely to be forced into exploitative working conditions - or make bad choices about employment and financial resources. Debt will probably rise, leaving some people in a situation that, even if they do get a job, they're still barely surviving because their debt repayments are so high. 

This does not sound like a prosperous country to me. It sounds very depressing. And I don't see how any of it is in the national interest.

I've focused mainly on young people who will lose Newstart, because theirs is the most desperate case. But the cuts to family tax benefit and changes to medical expenses will leave a lot of other people without enough money to live on. What exactly is Joe Hockey proposing they contribute? Their food, their rent, their electricity or their medical expenses. Which one of those essentials would he contribute himself to the national interest? 

It's pointless to talk about a healthy economy without asking what a healthy economy is for. By itself, it's just numbers on the page. But it is important to have a healthy economy if it serves the best interests of the society. When a healthy economy helps to build a prosperous, generous and inclusive society, then that is a good thing. But when we marginalise people and make people suffer to get that healthy economy, then something is wrong. 

The cuts announced in the budget may attack our deficit. But they also attack people - vulnerable people, in particular. It will attack - and maybe even cost - people's lives. Is lowering the deficit really worth the price of our soul? 

Friday, May 2, 2014

What would Jesus say about the Commission of Audit?

Yesterday, the Commission of Audit was released, which recommended huge cuts to government spending. While the Liberal Government has pointed out that the Commission of Audit is not the budget, it has not ruled out adopting the recommendations. Australians have already been warned to prepare ourselves for a tightening of the belts and it seems that at least some of the recommendations will be adopted.

Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, criticised the Audit, saying it was 'a plan to make sure that families get less while millionaires get more.' I'm not an economist (or even a well-informed politician) but in reading through the summaries, that's what it looks like to me too. 

Some of the cuts include payments for visiting the doctor, changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and scrapping of Family Tax Part B and new means-testing for Family Tax Part A. These cuts are going to severely hurt people on low incomes - the people who can least afford them. And in some cases, for those who cannot afford medication or who find it hard to put food on the table as it is, they may have a devastating impact. It seems that growing the economy is more important than people's lives.

As I said, I'm not an economist. I haven't read the whole report. And I'm certainly not Jesus and can't claim to speak for him. But as I read through the summaries, I couldn't help wondering what Jesus would think about them. And this is my guess.

Firstly, Jesus spoke a lot about the poor. He told people to sell all they have and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30, Mark 10:17-31). He said the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). He told people when they had a banquet to invite the poor (Luke 14:13). Furthermore, the bible is filled with verses about caring for the poor. You would have to ignore large chunks of the bible to avoid reaching the conclusion that God (and Jesus) care about how we treat the poor.

Therefore, it seems pretty conclusive that Jesus would not be pleased about cuts that hurt the poor. Nor would he be pleased about cuts which favour the rich at the expense of the poor. The Commission of Audit feels a bit like the opposite of the banquet Jesus speaks about - the poor are left out, while the rich are invited. So what would Jesus say? I don't know. But my feeling is it might sound something like what Jeremiah said: 'For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me' (Jeremiah 18:21).

Jesus also cared about the sick. A large part of his ministry involved healing people. What would he say about cuts that make it hard for people to afford a doctor or get the medication they need? Again, I don't know. But I can't imagine a person who spent such a large part of his ministry healing others would want anyone to be excluded from things that heal. The bible doesn't record any example of Jesus turning someone away because they didn't have the money to pay him.

And what would Jesus say about the scrapping of Family Tax Part B and the tougher means-testing for Family Tax Part A? Well, Jesus doesn't mention those payments because they weren't around in his day, but he does mention widows. And in fact the bible has a lot to say about widows. And every single time widows are mentioned, it is not that we should encourage widows to go out and get a job. No, it's telling us to take care of them. Now people might rightly say that not all (or even most) of people on Family Tax Benefit are widows - although I might point out that some are. But the reason why the bible talks so much about taking care of widows is that they did not have the economic (or social support) of a husband. And if the bible talks so much about helping them, I think we can assume Jesus would care about anyone with kids and without a partner.

Just one more note on that, in a well-known bible passage, Jesus says that the widow who put a mite into the temple treasury gave more than all the others (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). It's often used to encourage people to give more to the church. But it is also says something about how a small amount can actually be huge when you don't have much money to begin with. In relative terms, cuts to the poor are bigger than cuts to people with more money. Even small decreases in Family Tax Benefit can be huge decreases when we consider what they mean to the people affected.

Another recommendation is to lower growth in the minimum wage. Jesus didn't speak at all about this. But the bible does say some things that have relevance. In Malachi 3:5, it says that God will be a swift witness against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages. Deuteronomy 24:14 says not to abuse a needy and destitute worker. Jeremiah 22:13 says it is terrible for those who make people work for nothing and do not pay them their wages. It seems clear that God cares that people get paid a decent wage for the work that they do.

Well that's my take on what Jesus might think about the Commission of Audit. I have no doubt that other Christians will reach different conclusions. But even though interpretations of the bible may vary, I find it difficult to understand how any interpretation can ignore that Jesus cares about the poor and cares for those who are hurting. And if he does, then surely he must care about cuts which hurt the poor and the vulnerable.

Proverbs 22:16 says that 'Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.' The proposed recommendations are designed to improve our economy. Maybe they will. But they will also increase our poverty - not just poverty in financial terms of the many Australians who are already finding it hard to make ends meet - but the poverty of spirit and inclusion and compassion and engagement. We will all be poorer as a result - even if Australia's economy looks better.  

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