The best question

October 31, 2013

Here’s the best question I have read this week:

“Why does the richest country in the world still need anti-poverty week?”

The Ethical Jobs website asks it in an October 17th post.  I previously reported that by at least one measure – median income – Australians were now the richest people in the world.  And yet, the University of Canberra – Uniting Care report Poverty, Social Exclusion and Disadvantage in Australia (PDF document) points to distinct trends towards inequality of wealth in Australia (p. 7):

In the OECD database, of the 34 developed nations considered by the OECD in 2010, Australia ranked 26thin terms of poverty rate with 14.4 per cent of persons in poverty compared to the average of 11.3 per cent. Australia has a lower poverty rate than the United States (17.4 per cent) but a higher rate than the United Kingdom (10 per cent) and a much higher rate than the Scandinavian countries such as Denmark (6 per cent) and Finland (7.3 per cent).

Check out the figure on this same page (7):  Australian poverty levels jumped substantially from 1995 to 2010.  It is not a good thing that we are approaching American percentages.

A high level of median household income – as we have in Australia – clearly does NOT mean an equal society:  the 50% below the median can be way below, while the 50% above the line can be way above.  Much work needs to be done.




The new face of poverty in the USA – and it’s white

October 31, 2013

In his recent blog post, Richard C. Longworth describes a new phenomenon: a new white underclass, ascribing the blame to globalisation exacerbated by the Global Financial Crisis and the increasing inequality of wealth.

He points out that “America basically wrote off its inner-city blacks … a generation ago.”


Now this country is just waking up to the pathology of its new white underclass — the same unemployment, the same bad schools and drug use, the same familial breakdown, the same hopelessness.

New statistics dramatised this situation but got relatively little attention, perhaps because they seem incredible to most Americans. Based on census figures, they showed a decline in longevity among the poorest and least educated Americans. Life expectancy for white men without a high school diploma has dropped by three years since 1990. For white women drop-outs, it’s even worse: down by five years.

This is as nearly bad as the six-year drop in life expectancy for Russian men in the last years of Communism. Even in the black ghettoes of American cities, we’ve never seen anything like this: longevity for black men dropped by a year or two between 1984 and 1989.

Imagine that:  A decline in health outcomes almost as severe as what happened in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A recent Associated Press examination reports that

Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

This is the face of the new inequality.  The economic differences between whites and blacks appear to have narrowed in the USA NOT because blacks are doing so much better, but because many whites are doing so much worse.  If left unchecked, these trends have the potential of moving the USA towards un-imagined depths of inequality as we proceed over the next decade.

Remoteness Index of Australia

October 31, 2013

I am one of a small number that gets excited by a good map (the former town planner/geographer in me), but there is a great one of geographic remoteness in Australia as part of this document about families in rural and remote Australia, published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies:

Remoteness map of Australia

As I discussed in my recent post on rural and remote poverty, the key thing to remember is that almost every single indicator of well-being – educational attainment, health outcomes, families in crisis, etc (even telecommunications access) – declines as you move “outwards” in Australia from major cities to inner regional to outer regional to remote to very remote. This map shows it very well (although it does not include state boundaries on it, which would be helpful), and can be very helpful in determining which regions have compounded problems.

Rural Poverty in Australia

October 29, 2013

When you sit (as I often do) in one of Sydney’s wealthier suburbs, it’s hard to imagine the level of disadvantage the rural and remote Australians experience.  Fortunately, there are those that keep trying to remind us.

One of the latest is the report entitled A Snapshot of Poverty in Rural and Regional Australia, released on 14 October 2013 and co-published by the National Rural Health Alliance and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).

Here’s a figure that helps put it all in perspective:  “18 of the 20 electorates in Australia with the lowest household incomes are outside the capital cities”.  That’s correct.  A full 90% of them.

Need more proof?  Have a look at the table below.  Looks of figures (all expressed in percentages).  Examine the patterns carefully:  in every instance, as you move from metropolitan (the major cities to “inner regional” to “outer regional” to “remote” to “very remote”, the indicators get worse.  In other words, proportionately there are 50% more low income families with kids in remote communities than major cities – and almost three times that number in very remote communities.  There are 50% more long-term unemployed in regional areas and more than double that in very remote.  Whereas 50% of families in capital cities have private hospital cover, only 20% in remote communities do.  Every figure gets worse across every indicator.

Indirect poverty indicators in Australia

(All figures in %)

Major cities

Inner Regional

Outer Regional


Very Remote

Low income families w/kids






Single parent  beneficiaries






Disability pensioners






Long term unemployed






Unskilled and semi skilled






Jobless families children <15 yrs






Private health insurance hosp






Source: PHIDU—australia/remoteness—australia-2012-incl.-2011-census-data.html

Do you need more convincing?  How about this one?  Education indicators.  The differences are even starker.  You read this one right when you realise that only 4.5% of school leavers are in higher education in remote areas, only 12.1 in remote, 16.2 in outer regional and 20.4 in inner regional – but 35.5 in the major cities.  And yes, there are many more developmentally vulnerable children outside the major cities than in them.

Education indicators in Australia

(All figures in %)

Major cities

Inner Regional

Outer Regional


Very Remote

Young kids devt vulnerable






School leave in higher educ






16 year olds in high school






The uses and mis-uses of history

October 29, 2013

I have long held a strong interest in the uses of history.  Historians have made a whole field of it, called historiography, or the study of history.

One of the latest examples of an insightful historical perspective comes from Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut history professor, who has written passionately about gun rights and African-Americans in the July 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Cobb uses a new – and quite evocative term – “historical malpractice” – to describe how some American (National Rifle Association – NRA) gun rights advocates are attempting to co-opt African American support, by appealing to their sense of disenfranchisement.  Cobb goes on to write:

As with the recent anti-abortion billboards that targeted African-Americans by alluding to racist roots in the birth-control movement, the error lies in importing the past wholesale into the present. The point of history is to learn from it, not to proceed as if we were still living in it.

Great lessons here for the uses and mis-uses of history.  “Importing the past” without context is wrong, as is the assumption that we are living in a different historical era.  Wise words.

Joshua Marks doco on grandparents Australian broadcast premiere

October 26, 2013

Not many people make a documentary film about their grandparents, especially if they are not famous.

Well, Sydney-based Joshua Marks has.  He calls it, simply, My Grandparents.   There’s a “tag line” that goes “A young film-maker rediscovers his ancestors – and they’re still alive!”

My Grandparents will be broadcast nationally here in Australia this Sunday, 27th October 2013 at 8.30pm on the Aurora Community Television channel, on Foxtel.

The documentary is a group biography, described as a “cross-generational documentary in which filmmaker Joshua Marks sets out to find out more about his grandparents – what drives them, what fears and hopes they have.”

Marks worked on his film over two years and incorporated lots of humour. In just 26 minutes (how did he ever edit it down?), he creates “a journey of awareness”.  As with all good semi-autobiographical films (think of Sarah Polley’s recent Stories We Tell), the film becomes both a journey of discovery as well as an elucidation of his subjects.

Declaration here:  I am related to Joshua Marks through marriage, and I know two of his three living grandparents quite well.  I am also the Chair of the Board of Aurora.  So I am anything but objective in these matters.  But still – it’s a delightful film worth watching.  And Aurora is a charming, quirky and fascinating community channel – to the best of my knowledge, the only television channel in Australia that broadcasts 100% Australian content.

Missed the broadcast on Aurora?  You can purchase the DVD from Ronin Films – the DVD has extra features, including an interview with Marks.  (Pricing depends on who you are and where you live.)

Photos below – top one the promotional flyer; bottom one the film-maker with his three grandparents.

My Grandparents_Key Art My Grandparents_production still cropped


The cultural moment of Benedict Cumberbatch

October 23, 2013

In its cover article this week (October 28, 2013), Benedict Cumberbatch featured in Time magazine.  As readers of this blog may have noted, I am a fan of “cultural moments”, and Cumberbatch may well be the current man who captures the moment.

(In fact, my PhD thesis at Macquarie University, is entitled The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ Goes to the Movies.)

The Time article author Jesse Dorris has a neat paragraph capturing both Cumberbatch’s “moment” and defining the nature of what a “cultural moment” means in film:

Sometimes an actor captures a cultural moment in a film.  Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, for example, embodied the fever dreams of the feminist backlash in a single sociopath, a woman whose sexual power threatened to destroy all it touched.  and sometimes an actor’s body of work provides a kind of historical shorthand:  Dennis Hopper’s shift from Easy Rider‘s wide-eyed radical to the shell-shocked journalist in Apocalypse Now to the suburban, Reagan-era rot of Blue Velvet captures almost 20 years in under seven hours.

In a single year’s clutch of performances, Cumberbatch has channeled half a dozen shades of zeitgeist.

His latest is playing Julian Assange in the film The Fifth Estate… as well as Star Trek Into Darkness, August: Osage County (with Meryl Streep) and 12 Years a Slave. Can’t wait.

Benedict Cumberbatch Time cover