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Poverty and inequality in indigenous australians

Indigenous Australian’s marked February 13th 2008 on their calendar as one of the most significant in their history. The Australian Prime Minster offered an apology to every Indigenous person – past and present.  What fuelled his apology were the acts that occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The Australian government at the time forcibly removed Indigenous children from their home. The theory behind removing Australian Aboriginal’s and Torres Strait Islander’s from their families was too eventually phase out their race. In his apology Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated “We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history”.  Besides the estimated hundred year mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, these people founded our land an estimated 40,000 years ago. That is a long time where settlers from this land did not disrupt the Indigenous people’s way of life. Although I love Australia, I love my meat pie and the Richmond Tigers in the Australian Football League. I find it difficult not to reflect on how our forefathers stole this land from the Aboriginal people and created their own nation. Unfortunately we cannot change the past, it is impossible to right any wrong and change history. Surely though we can aid Indigenous Australians into living the quality of life that most of us do not appreciate. Kevin Rudd’s apology was a step in the right direction for the Australian government. They admitted that the Australian government as a whole got it wrong and by admitting their failure, they can start to give these people the recognition they deserve.

Tess Lea (2008: 1), who wrote an Anthropological study of the culture of public health governance in the Northern Territory questions why Aboriginal people die seventeen years younger than their white counterparts, will this change? Lea claims that the problem is also the answer. She carefully places a quote by Matthews that explained why the health of Aboriginal people had deteriorated throughout time. “They suffer poor housing, poor nutrition, alcohol, poor health services and all other ills of Australian society. These social and historical originals of poor Aboriginal health can be traced back to the time of colonisation.” (Matthews 1996: 30) The definition of poverty is a little bit more complicated concerning Australians. Since Australia is one of the richest nations in the world, with such a small population for such a large land with so many resources, we should not struggle in accommodating all of our citizens. Yet here we have an entire race of people who have been unfairly treated ever since their land was taken away from them. In the text Indigenous People & Poverty (2005:199) the authors explain that it is an occasional source of embarrassment to the governments of rich nations such as Australia and the United States – which the Indigenous people within their borders are in each case among their poorest citizens. Lea explains that the territory occupied by Aboriginals is transformed into a “symbolic pocket of poverty” (Lea 2008:151).  Justin Healey wrote ‘The Homeless’ (2002:11), in his detailed anthropological research he stated that “Indigenous people have a higher rate of homelessness than people from other cultural backgrounds” (Healey, 2002:11). Why is it that Indigenous Australians have less money and cannot adapt to the current Australian way of life? Why is it that settlers from other nations are better suited to living in Australia than the founders of the Australian land themselves?  Healey also pointed out that factors impacting on high levels of Indigenous homelessness include such things as large families and poor health. Healey claims that one of the reasons that the Indigenous have not been successful in adapting to our way of life is due to the fact there is “...A lack of understanding by the wider community of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture” (Healey, 2002:11). Derogatory comments are continuously made towards Aboriginals by the certain members of the Australian public. Unless you have lived in a perfect neighbourhood, you should be familiar with the term ‘abo’. While I was at high school this was a general comment made towards someone who acted idiotic, it was directed to someone inconsiderate. It was an insult to be called an ‘abo’. Individuals who were uneducated on the Indigenous heritage of our nation made these comments, and that was almost everyone. In most cases, when this word had been shouted around my presence. It was not directed as a comment full of hate. So in other words, when a person calls someone else an ‘abo’, it is an insult that is also meant to be a joke. It is not a heat of the moment verbal abuse. Throughout my time in primary and high school, history class skimmed through educating us on our Indigenous heritage. We learned about the American Revolution, Gold Rush, First Fleet, Italy, England, Greece, Egypt, Africa, World Wars, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, George Washington, John Howard and even the Australian Open. We did go through issues such as the Stolen Generation and our Aboriginal roots, but its level of importance was not established. Should future students be educated more extensively on Australia’s history? Yes. Does social inequality towards Indigenous Australians matter? Of course it does; but just as Healey explained there is a lack of understanding by the wider community. From my perspective their lack of understanding comes from a lack of knowledge. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has placed a larger emphasis on history being taught throughout schools in Australia. This is an admission that Australian history was not taught well previously, and the curriculum has now changed to better reflect the actual history of our nation. Reviewing the education system was an important step for Gillard and the Australian government to make. This is such an important step to take for the future of our nation. We cannot change the way adults think, but we can change what their children and their grandchildren will learn.

Poverty is defined as the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support. The Brotherhood of St. Laurence did a study on poverty by asking the public what their stance on economical inequality was. In a 1990 publication one response was “The poor are always with us. The richest nations on earth can’t get rid of poverty. Why should Australia be any different?” (Brotherhood of St. Lawrence, 1990: 9) Sadly this is how many people actually feel. It is a defeatist’s view. Why work on something that cannot be fixed? We cannot expect to achieve anything by placing problems in the ‘too hard’ basket. How can we begin to solve poverty between the Aboriginal ranks of our nation? Sir Bob Geldof stated that Australia was absurd to throw away jobs overseas when its Indigenous population is not utilized to its full extent. To create a sustainable future for these people we need to educate them. Poverty should not only be defined in Australia by the amount of money in our bank accounts. Poverty should also be defined by the level of opportunities we have compared to our peers. The most prominent way to gather opportunity, especially through employment is to get a decent education. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows us that 39% of Indigenous students stayed on until year 12; compare that with 75% of the Australian population as a whole and you can see that they are disadvantaged. 22% of indigenous adults had a vocational or higher education qualification, compared with 48% for the Australian population as a whole. These general statistics only showcase performances of Aboriginal adults. What are even more shocking are their performances in primary education. The Bureau also shows the performances of indigenous and non indigenous students throughout year’s three, five and seven on reading, writing and numeracy. Their statistics show that Indigenous students fall behind as they continue further with their studies. What that shows us is that these children have potential, and that potential is not reached. An example would be their reading skills. Which consistently drop until their basic education is over. Because of the Indigenous peoples below average academic performances their ability to jump into employment dwindles.

 

The Australia Bureau of Statistics also shows that the rate of unemployment for Indigenous Australian’s is at 20%. That is almost three times the amount of the standard unemployment rate of Australian’s. John Freebairn (2005: 4) from the Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Research shows us that the reason for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders low employment rate is due to poor health and high disability rates. So all these issues create a domino effect and revolve around each other. Aboriginals grow up being disadvantaged with their education, and then they grow up and develop illnesses that in turn affect their employment. Because in all honesty, who can work when they are sick? Who can create and maintain a career whilst disabled or caring for someone who is disabled? Freebairn argues that the high labour costs the Australian government has placed on employers has discouraged the use of our unemployed and sent jobs overseas. Freebairn believes that by lowering minimum wages the government can encourage employers to hire the unemployed. Although they would not be making an amazing sum of money, they are at least gaining experience in the work force, keeping jobs in Australia and building up their own skills to move up the corporate ladder of success. Professor Jon Altman (2000: VI) who is the director at the centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University claims that it is difficult to access the poverty and inequality issues for Australian’s Indigenous due to their massive population growth. Australian’s Indigenous population soared from 116,000 in 1971 towards 422,000 in 2001. Altman explains that such rapid growth places financial strain on government Indigenous-specific programs. Although there are hurdles Altman confirms that Indigenous Australians, as a group have the lowest economic status of all Australians. He also elaborates that Aboriginals are far less likely to be employers or self employed.

 

What has been touched upon in this essay but not closely examined is the health problems that Indigenous Australians have faced for generations. Tess Lea’s (2008:1) anthropological research told us that Aboriginals die seventeen years younger than the average Australian. Due to lack of access to medical facilities, Indigenous Australians were twice as likely to report their health as fair/poor and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability or long-term health conditions. Their health problems stem from circulatory system, renal failure, diabetes, cot death, mental health, neoplasms and respiratory issues. In the National Aboriginal Health Strategy which was published in March 1989, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs stated that “...Assistance is also provided to Aboriginal community-controlled health services in the belief that Aboriginal people must be more closely involved in all aspects of the health system if there is to be a real and lasting improvement in Aboriginal health”. Aboriginal people who work in health recognise that mental health is a major part of ill health. Although Aboriginal services regard this mental health problem as a serious issue, this problem is seen as a ‘low priority’ concern to government agencies. In A National Aboriginal Health Strategy (1989:171) the author claims that government agencies only respond to the problems that have come under the media spotlight (A National Aboriginal Health Strategy 1989: 171). The text also comments on how impressive the advancements of the treatment for mental health have accelerated since the Second World War But this progression has not benefitted the Aboriginal people. This text was written in March 1989. Couzos and Murray (2008:29) wrote Aboriginal Primary Health Care in 2008 and claimed that even after all these years Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have by far the worst health care status of any identifiable group in Australia. They also have the poorest access to health systems. (Aboriginal Primary Health Care 2008: 29) In the context of this country, poverty and inequality are connected to one another through such issues as health care. Medical care is the fundamental requirement that each Australian is assured by every government in charge. By attaining medical care we are less likely to catch an illness that would destroy our families financially and mentally. It is an inequality and a poverty issue that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s do not have the same benefits of Australians with a different ethnicity.  It is an issue of poverty because without the basic right of health care, you do get sick. When you get sick you cannot work and you cannot make an income. Without an income you cannot eat food, have shelter and attain other basic human requirements that determine whether you are lower class or middle class. It is an issue of inequality due to the fact that Indigenous Australian’s did not have the right to vote until 1962.

 

Poverty and inequality are connected to one another in Australia due to the Aboriginal people that have occupied this land for such a long time, have that very same land taken over and are not treated equally. These Indigenous Australians were not even allowed to vote until later in the 20th century. They have been disregarded and treated like outsiders, yet we are the outsiders.  The various forms of inequality for Indigenous Australian’s range from health, education, and the basic knowledge of their sacrifices other Australian’s have not recognised. Although these people have been treated unfairly, progress is being made. This progress is very slow but at least it is occurring. The Australian government has apologised, changes to our education system are being made to help benefit future generations on their learning potential and the medical assistance Indigenous people are receiving is slowly increasing to a favourable degree. Hopefully progress can increase and the poverty and inequality in Indigenous Australian can decrease. 

 

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