Cultural Artefact: Poverty


There have always been those who have been in want, or lacking the means of reasonable subsistence. Poverty, however, is always relative and in western civilisation is related to employment, opportunity and services. Not to have work in the nineteenth century was to place a person in the most indigent of circumstances.


If the Australian colonies were to develop, labour was necessary, and England saw emigration as alleviating surplus population and pauperism; but the colonies were concerned that immigration would bring habitual paupers. Free workers in Tasmania, including ex-convicts, had to compete with cheap convict labour for work, especially from 1830 to 1850, and many found themselves in dire poverty, dependent on meagre government stores, as churches and the general population were unable to help. The poor gathered into slums such as Wapping in Hobart, with similar unfortunate social and health outcomes as English slums.

Private philanthropy gradually developed from 1850, but the major expense of caring for the indigent fell on the government. In 1873 state welfare services began with the Office of the Administrator of Charitable Relief. There was concern that the 'consequences of idleness and dissipation' were not relieved, but both the government and voluntary sector were ambivalent towards those receiving assistance, with references to the dissolute and thriftless, but also recognition that distress was due primarily to economic difficulties rather than natural unworthiness. This ambivalence persisted throughout our history. Two depressions led to a modification of attitudes to the poor, as they touched the bourgeoisie, who came to understand the impact of poverty.

The 1891 Depression saw an extraordinary increase in families in distress, and real poverty was felt among the respectable classes. The First World War brought some economic advantages to the home front, but poverty was still a reality. An examination into the flu epidemic of 1919 found widespread unemployment, undernourishment and social misery. Many soldier settlers failed, and were forced into debt and undeserved poverty.

During the 1930s Depression both the government and the private sector were so besieged by requests for assistance that applicants' means were assiduously examined. Applicants could be refused if they had anything of value, for example pianos, wirelesses, even the horse and cart, their means of support. Unemployment figures rose from 11 percent in 1928 to 27 percent in 1931. Lloyd Robson said the most profound effect of the Depression on male workers was 'the loss of their role and dignity as dependable bread winners'. However, the effects of the Depression fell just as heavily upon women. As homemakers and mothers, they had to make ends meet, and suffered treasured household items sold and meagre savings dissipated. Single unemployed women had to fall back on charitable organisations for help.

The two decades following the Second World War have been described as an era of ease and prosperity. The development of public housing and job opportunities assisted many low-income people to maintain a reasonable standard of living. The slums were no more. However, broad-acre housing estates brought new problems, particularly in the face of increasing family dysfunction.

Poverty and its appalling consequences were rediscovered in the Melbourne suburbs in 1966 by Henderson et al. Henderson set a conservative poverty line but estimated that 10 percent of Australians were very poor, while another 8 percent earned less than 20 percent over the poverty line. In Tasmania these figures were 15 percent and 12.5 percent respectively. Henderson concluded that poverty was related to social structure, education, health care, housing conditions and prospects.

In 1979/80 Errey and Arnold examined the impact of unemployment and low income in the broad-acre estates of Clarendon Vale/Rokeby. Obviously unemployment benefits, originally provided as a stopgap measure, were now long-term income, inadequate to meet bills, pay debts and take up opportunities; 'poverty is a pervasive force which penetrates every aspect of the daily lives of a great number of Tasmanians'. Five years on Arnold remained concerned about the lack of access to services, hopelessness and low self-esteem in people in broad-acre estates.

Dennis Daniels

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