Are we setting the bar for a ‘good’ life too low?

Zoya Patel 10 February 2021 26
Centrelink queue

Canberrans queuing to apply for COVID-19 income support in March 2020. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

I met a young woman recently who told me that at one point during COVID-19, she was effectively staring down homelessness and unemployment with no obvious pathway to a long-term solution.

She was forced to live on the couch of a friend while she desperately applied for any job she could get, having not finished high school and therefore only being qualified for entry-level hospitality or admin roles (the latter being very difficult to get). As she told me this story, the woman shrugged and said words to the effect of, “But I know I’m really lucky, I did have someone to stay with, I have more privilege than others”.

Wait a second. Having a temporary roof over one’s head, without any certainty or agency, is now considered ‘privilege’? Being ‘lucky’ is defined by not being completely destitute? When did we start setting the bar this low for a good life?

I know other young people who have been working short-term contract to short-term contract for years but count themselves lucky to have been gainfully employed. Some people have been unable to find a rental they can afford in Canberra but consider themselves among the fortunate when they can move into a studio granny flat with no heating or cooling, and that’s too small for the two people and two dogs in their family.

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One woman I know admitted that she feels terrible having to rely on her partner’s income due to her long-term health condition preventing her from working full-time, but that she knows she’s lucky not to be living off the meagre Newstart allowance.

On one cynical level, I agree with this assessment of privilege and fortune. No matter how ill-fitted or temporary, having a home is still better than being one of the thousands of Canberrans currently on the waitlist for social housing (a wait that could extend to years). No matter how insecure, having some employment is better than trying to make ends meet on a welfare payment that has been proven to be too low to prevent poverty.

But our willingness as a society to accept the gradual widening of the wealth gap to the point where the circumstances I describe are becoming more the norm and no longer the exception is horrifying.

When I was a child, I watched my parents come to Australia with nothing but meagre savings and the promise of my father’s new job, and turn themselves into wealthy business owners over the course of two decades. Within a few years, they were homeowners, a few years further, they had an investment property and a business. These things were achievable, even with four children, and only one full-time salary in the family (my mother worked packing shelves at a supermarket part-time) because the average income was commensurate to living costs.

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A generation later, and most of my peers spend more than 30 per cent of their salaries on rent or housing costs, placing them into what is defined as housing stress. There is no appetite for homeownership among this cohort, not because they don’t want to own a home, but because they assume it isn’t an option for them.

Homeownership aside, the dreams we have are different now. They’re smaller, more realistic. We don’t expect to be rich, to retire early, to exercise our economic freedom. Having been ejected out of school or university into a workforce where the youth unemployment rate has been over 10 per cent for a decade, we’re just hoping for a long-term job and the chance to maybe afford a child one day. However, the prohibitive costs of childcare make this seem unattainable too.

This might sound like a bunch of millennial whinging, but it’s worth noting that the gap between household income and the cost of living is almost twice as high as it was in the 80s.

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The gap between the most wealthy and the least wealthy Australian is astronomically high – the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australians have 92 times more wealth than those in the bottom 20 per cent.

Listening to the young woman I mentioned at the outset of this column, I was perplexed by how small her hopes were, how little appetite she had for big dreams because she was firmly grounded in her depressing reality.

How have we allowed inequality to become so entrenched, that we now ‘dream’ of the necessities that all people should have access to – food, water, shelter, and the resources to live a physically and intellectually fulfilling life? When did we decide to place the onus only on the individual, and not on society, to ensure that people have the resources to survive and thrive?

If we keep setting the bar for a good life so low, with the average Australian expending most of their energy on retaining their basic quality of life, how can we expect Australia to continue to burgeon with innovation and progress?

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26 Responses to Are we setting the bar for a ‘good’ life too low?
Michael Norris Michael Norris 1:59 am 12 Feb 21

What's often missed in these discussions is that Newstart is not just too little money - it's more of hindrance than a help to actually getting work, and the outsourcing of service providers is a massive rort. The system needs a huge overhaul to be made helpful and not corrupt.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:14 pm 11 Feb 21

“The gap between the most wealthy and the least wealthy Australian is astronomically high – the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australians have 92 times more wealth than those in the bottom 20 per cent.”

A gap which will likely be exacerbated by the flattening of the income tax scales (with relatively little being done for low income earners in recent years) and the incessant push for “broadening” of the tax base to compensate for that – hence changes such as the Barr government’s rates/land tax increases over many years, and regular calls to increase and widen the scope of the GST.

Interestingly, some of the economic commentators, lobbyists etc. who make the most noise about inequality (as a justification for tax changes which just happen to suit them) have nothing at all to say on the subject of inheritance taxes as a means of addressing inequality.

Mark Newman Mark Newman 7:26 pm 11 Feb 21

I have created a group called “The Majority Party” to provide a safe forum to discuss current issues within the ACT particularly relating to the government. It is an respectful group with a diverse audience where everyone is entitled to an opinion. My aim is to discuss solutions to current problems and push the ACT government for change.

I have only been allowed to invite 50 people so please feel free to join and invite people who may want to be involved.


Marmadoc Hornblower Marmadoc Hornblower 2:34 pm 11 Feb 21

Probably need to be more grateful for how good we have it compared to our 6 nearest neighbours

Natalie Grey Natalie Grey 1:30 pm 11 Feb 21

Rather than complain about wealth inequality, people need to understand WHY there is a range. The woman in the article admits she dropped out of school. That was her choice. Her situation now is the result of her choice. If you look at the top income earners, you'll find that none, or very few, dropped out of school. They worked hard. They continued education, in a field where jobs were available and paid well. They made sacrifices. You don't achieve financial security by luck. Where people have it, they have normally earned it.

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 2:38 pm 11 Feb 21

    Natalie Grey, tell that to the billions of people living in refugee camps and on rubbish dumps. Kids drop out of school because of dysfunctional homes or undiagnosed mental health conditions or any number of other reasons. Look up Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety for a good insight into why inequality is not a product of choice.

Peter Major Peter Major 1:02 pm 11 Feb 21

Then get a good education, work hard and buy what you need. Easy. Set expectations to what YOU not anyone else can achieve.

    Quin Downs Quin Downs 4:57 pm 11 Feb 21

    Peter Major Yep!I had a job after school since I was 12!My parents had a Milk Bar but taught me if I wanted a cold Topsky I had to put the money in the till!

    Peter Major Peter Major 6:22 pm 11 Feb 21

    Quin Downs same, here. Paper run, mowing lawns, buying mg own stuff

    Lee Powell Lee Powell 6:45 pm 11 Feb 21

    yeah most kids do that. Did you have to pay 400 a week rent straight out of school on a minimum wage though? That's what today's youth are looking at.

    Peter Major Peter Major 8:42 pm 11 Feb 21

    Lee Powell no, i went straight to work as a trainee, stayed hone paid fares and board till i was 20 when i got married abd moved out. My take home pay was $17.50 per fortnight. At 16, then $34 at 17. Paid $7 per week fares and commuted from Liverpool to North Sydney . Suck it up princess, life wasn't all good. But hard work pays off.

    Lee Powell Lee Powell 6:32 am 12 Feb 21

    Peter Major stayed home till you were 20. Sounds like it would have been good. Four years headstart on a lot of people. When I was 16 I was earning 400 a week. Rent was 280. Bear in mind though that's only rent, not all inclusive board.

    Peter Major Peter Major 7:30 am 12 Feb 21

    Lee Powell yeah, when your wages were under $50 a week and you are a trainee then you pay board and stay home. 400 a week , i raised one kud on less than that including mortgage payments. I lived nearlt 70kms from work

Fortress Epiphany Fortress Epiphany 11:15 am 11 Feb 21

At least the young woman in the story is realistic and knows you have to work your way up and that the thinking that it all gets handed to you is a fantasy. Start small and be determined and you’ll get what you need in life.

Rheyce Spears Rheyce Spears 9:37 am 11 Feb 21

Simple solutions that can get the ball rolling:

1. Vote out this useless LNP Government. Their policies deliberately exacerbate this situation.

2. Unionise the hell out of workplaces. Remember the days of high wage growth? That didn’t happen by magic, that was unions.

3. Double Jobseeker. Permanently.

4. Legislate immediately to restore penalty rates and lock in significant incremental pay rises over the next 5 years. You significantly increase the wealth of the lowest paid and you’ll see businesses drag wages everywhere else up as they need to compete.

5. Cut our immigration program significantly. If farmers want fruit pickers they can pay proper hourly rates to those already here. This also eases the burden on infrastructure and forces businesses to raise wages for skilled workers that are in short supply.

Money trickles up, not down. It’s about time governments stopped pretending it’s the other way round.

    Jason Duarte Jason Duarte 11:02 am 11 Feb 21

    The only thing you left off was nationalising business?

    Jim Roy Jim Roy 1:59 pm 11 Feb 21

    Rheyce Spears are you Jeremy Corbyn in disguise?

Simon Dw Disndat Simon Dw Disndat 9:11 am 11 Feb 21

Same as usual though. An article bemoaning the current way things are but not putting your name to any solutions. Always easy to have an opinion. The person you spoke to is right, there are worse people out there and in probably worse situations.

    Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 9:48 am 11 Feb 21

    Simon Dw Disndat answer is simple. The bofins need to visit Germany or any Scandinavian Country and bring back their social health, education, welfare and old age policies, and how to properly Future Fund from the profits of exports, and you have your answer

    Simon Dw Disndat Simon Dw Disndat 7:38 pm 11 Feb 21

    We have the future fund. Housing prices in the Nordic countries aren't cheap either, also have high wages as well. There isn't really that much difference between us all.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:41 am 11 Feb 21

“…..This might sound like a bunch of millennial whinging……”

You’ve nailed it again..

chewy14 chewy14 8:22 am 11 Feb 21

Sorry, but this article just ignores the reality of the amount of government and non government support services and welfare that is provided in Australia for some myth that poverty and inequality is rampant in Australia.

I suppose this is what we get when objective measures of poverty can’t be used because almost no one actually lives in poverty, so we switch to using subjective comparisons and people’s expectations increase.

Whilst there are definite improvements that could be made to the services and assistance provided to people to help them better their own position, ignoring how much is actually available because it doesn’t fit a pre-determined narrative doesn’t help anyone.

Jason Duarte Jason Duarte 7:29 am 11 Feb 21

I am curious who is saying a good life is minimum wage and inadequate housing?

    Tony McKillop Tony McKillop 7:50 am 11 Feb 21

    Jason Duarte those people above minimum wage and in a massive house. Those are the people saying it would be a good life

    Frank Trapani Frank Trapani 11:12 am 11 Feb 21

    Tony McKillop Which people are saying these things? Are you collecting data from going to church?

    Can you please organise a meeting with ‘Those People’ So they can teach us how it’s done?? Also, we can get the chance to see their massive house??

    Lee Powell Lee Powell 6:43 pm 11 Feb 21

    Read the article

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