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Mark Bagshaw
Poverty and social disadvantage – move over folks, you’ve had your go
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On last night's controversial Q&A program on the ABC, Co-founder of The Able Movement, Mark Bagshaw, had the opportunity to ask the panel a question about poverty and social disadvantage. His question was in two parts: "how do we sell the value of social investment to a population that thinks it already pays too much tax?", and "will we ever find solutions to social disadvantage when the privileged end of society makes all the decisions that affect the lives of disadvantaged people?"


As I listened to the responses from the panel to my question, I was left with a profound sense that I was on the set of a B grade remake of Groundhog Day.

I’ve been involved in social reform in one way or another for 40 years and I’ve been hearing the same words from those in the citadels of power over and over again. “We all agree we could be doing better”. “We are all struggling to find solutions”. “It’s all very hard”. “We’ve got a long way to go, but this stuff takes time”.

Then there’s the inevitable tiresome, point-scoring nonsense from both sides of politics. “The other side doesn’t care”. “Our policies are better”. “No, their policies are crap – ours are the best”. Really? So how do you explain the fact that there’s been absolutely no progress closing the participation gap for people with disability, indigenous people, people who live in poverty since records began?

The one that really gets up my nose is the “trickle-down effect”. Seriously?? So tell, me how on earth has that helped people with disability in the Western world? In Australia??? Every single measure pointing to the quality of life for people with disability is bad almost beyond belief, but none more shocking than the reality that 45% of people with disability in Australia are living in poverty. Tell me how it’s lifted indigenous people out of abject poverty, or how it’s narrowed the gap between rich and poor.

No, we’ve tried your way and it hasn’t worked. Don’t get me wrong – while there are some people in every part of society who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves, for the most part I believe our leadership really wants to do the right thing. And I’m not critical of privilege per se. While I have a disability myself, I’ve been fortunate to have been offered opportunities that many people with disability simply don’t get, and as a result I live a very privileged life myself.

My point is simple, but seemed to be lost on the panel. Privileged people live lives that are so far removed from those who live with social disadvantage that they may as well be on a different planet. Sorry folks, I know that for the most part you’re all trying very hard and want to “do the right thing”, but honestly you just don’t have a clue.

I was also making the point that there is a better way. I am constantly seeing examples of simple solutions being devised and implemented by communities on the ground that sometimes almost overnight transform the lives of disadvantaged people. A personal leadership program for troubled teenagers in some of Australia’s most socially disadvantaged communities in North Adelaide that takes these young people out of school one day a week for 10 weeks and teaches them basic life skills. It transforms their lives, and very often it transforms the lives of everyone around them. The program has had an even more profound effect on young people with intellectual disability in Adelaide, helping them gain the skills and confidence to gain meaningful work in open employment.

These solutions are not rocket science, but there’s magic in the mix. The magic is that the people leading these initiatives genuinely believe in the capacity of every human being.

And it’s also about communities taking control. Communities that understand the human dimension of poverty and disadvantage. Communities that understand that the most effective path out of poverty and social disadvantage is not in “looking after” people who find themselves at the disadvantaged end of the social spectrum and drip feeding them on a welfare diet that disempowers them, saps their energy and ultimately puts their fires out. Communities that come together and devise solutions in partnership with those facing social disadvantage – solutions that build the skills and capacity that every person needs to take control of their own lives.

So thanks for all your effort, folks, but you’ve had your turn, and it is now time you transferred some of your power and accumulated wealth to those who understand social disadvantage because they’re there.

Then, respectfully, please just get out of the way.

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