Fair go? A quaint notion fades amid the culture of inequality

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Fair go? A quaint notion fades amid the culture of inequality
Sunday 30 April 2000

ON the corner of Park Avenue and 86th Street in New York, a middle-aged woman pauses to tuck a rug around the knees of the wilted lady she is pushing in a wheelchair. She bends and whispers something, but her charge doesn't reply.

Perhaps she can't. Her once-handsome head lolls and her eyes slide unfocused over the spring blaze of red, yellow and salmon-pink tulips that divide the avenue with Dutch precision.

It is impossible to know the exact relationship between the two women - this plump maid pushing a faded Grace Kelly, with her velvet headband awry and her ringed hands limp on her rug. But what is clear is that one is maid, and black, and the other mistress and white.

It seems such a normal expectation in New York - that one race will serve the other. It is also routinely accepted that some people will live in breathtaking luxury while others live out of supermarket trolleys. One hardy double-trolley lady who nearly bowled me over had the grace to apologise and the wit to make her impossible life seem somehow feasible.

"They sometimes get away from me, honey." No wonder - her trolleys were a lurching miracle of cram-packing and balance, with five supermarket-bag panniers swinging from each handle. A woman who could manipulate that load should run for governor.

Instead, she turned her attention to the trash bin, hauled out a discarded bag from the Museum of Modern Art, and decanted some of her goods into it. Then she winked and strode off up the avenue, whistling for all the world like a latter-day Frank Sinatra.

You have to console yourself with such thoughts in New York lest the squalor and inequality become unbearable.

Flying between Melbourne and the United States, I had time on my hands to plough through reviews of a recent analysis of poverty and inequality, The Real World of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge University Press), written by a consortium of academics including Robert Goodin, professor of philosophy and politics at the Australian National University. The Australian connection made me prick up my ears.

It was not an encouraging read, but certainly meatier than airline catering. What the writers conclude, on the basis of an impressive accumulation of evidence, is that poverty and gross inequality can be effectively ameliorated by government intervention and redistribution. But what they also show is that countries vary considerably in their willingness to adopt the so-called transfer mechanisms required. The US and Australia both have high rates of relative poverty before government intervention - although their rates are comparable with those in Europe and the UK. What is shocking is that the US and Australian rates after government intervention are still so high. The US tolerates a rate of post-tax (or post-government intervention) poverty that is twice the average for European countries. And Australia comes in next, with higher post-tax rates of poverty than France, Germany, Italy or the UK. This is a shameful disgrace.

But how efficient are we by comparison with the social democratic regimes of Europe, how productive, you might ask?

In Goodin et al's analysis the figures don't stack up that way. Even the heavy welfare regimes seem to produce about the same sort of economic growth and productivity for their citizens over time, but without the marked inequality. The sociological difference is that some countries - the US is the leader here - are prepared to tolerate the poverty of a minority of citizens with a horrifying equanimity.

But are we horrified in this land of what used to be called "the fair go" to be tolerating post-intervention rates of poverty that so closely follow the lead of the US? Have we dulled our capacity for shock? Have we given up on the redistributive mechanisms that once guaranteed a measure of dignity for all Australians?

In a diner way downtown from Park Avenue, and light years away in social aspiration, a fellow caffeine addict quizzed us about Australia, the way Americans so often do - with enthusiasm and blithe ignorance ("Is that Tasmania or Tanzania?") She taught graphic art at the university. Her rent in New York was killing her - $US1600 a month for three rooms - so maybe, she would come check us out. There were so many people coming into New York now from Europe, she said. They came because their European home countries were now socialist. We had heard that, hadn't we? We had great weather in Australia, great beaches - maybe she would come - but she hoped we weren't socialist.

I should have sent her across the road to Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, but I think the title might have put her off. Too close to socialism.

Morag Fraser is the editor of Eureka Street.

Have we dulled our capacity for shock? Have we given up on the redistributive mechanisms that once guaranteed a measure of dignity for all Australians?

Interesting questions that are difficult to answer in a surreality of Sesame Street.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), April 30, 2000


Pieter! Old Buddy, get out and get some ice cream and enjoy the evening. These are very interesting, but very depressing articles that you've posted today. Take a break, dude! I'll join you for a stroll later.

-- (kb8um8@yahoo.com), April 30, 2000.

Having been born and raised (and spent 40 years) in NYC, I always found the disparity very difficult to reconcile. Such disparity manifested itself in many areas of the city, but none so stark as Park Avenue or the Upper East Side.

Prior to my leaving NYC, I noticed it had become quite prominent in the Wall Street Area as well. Many times in the winter I'd be walking between the office and the subway station and I'd see a homeless person huddled over a grating that was emitting steam to keep warm. I'd offer my gloves or my scarf or to buy a meal. I've gone so far as to literally give my last dollar to someone. It was probably out of guilt that I was going to a warm home, and this person's home was on the sidewalk over the grating -- in the winter; in the summer, it would be in a grove of trees in Battery or Central Park, or along the FDR Drive on the east side, under the highway.

The sad fact of Life In NYC is that many of the homeless would rather be on the streets than in the shelters -- and you'd understand that if you'd ever seen the shelters (horror-houses, many of them). It always amazed me how Guiliani (the mayor) was constantly taking credit for lowering the crime rate, cleaning up the city (via "quality of life" initiatives), but never really did anything to benefit the homeless. His one "act" in that regard was to "get them off the streets". Couldn't figure out what he thought that would solve, aside from "aesthetics". But as is the norm in many places, homelessness is an invisible problem in NYC.

BTW, if that woman in the diner was paying $1600 for three rooms, by Manhattan standards, that's a bargain.

-- Patricia (PatriciaS@lasvegas.com), April 30, 2000.

Howdy kb8,
Often I wonder if I should post, but these articles had 'post-me-now' all over them. This contrasts the posts about Elian and ones knocking 'ye old rickety regulator', a comptroller of surpassing excellence I might add. I figure to bring diversity & variety, but in the past few weeks a singularity sneaks these forums, stifling the creative thoughtzzzzes. I'll brighten up from now on...promise!

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), April 30, 2000.

I'm sure I meant 'unsurpassing excellence', but who can be sure of anything these days. I'll stop now before my next slip up. Bananas anyone?

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), April 30, 2000.


Keep posting both. They are thought provocing.

-- Cherri (sams@brigadoon.com), May 01, 2000.

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