Australia - Poverty and wealth

Australia has sometimes been called a "classless society," though this is not strictly true. Class in Australia is generally defined on the basis of income or self identification. The terms "working class," "middle class," and "upper class" are all in use, but are difficult to define statistically. Social mobility in Australia is high and there are no formal or cultural obstacles to movement between social or economic classes. Australia's high level of multiculturalism, with many recent immigrants, also contributes to class mobility. Immigrants are often concerned to get the best possible education for their children so that they will move upwards economically. There are some differences in standards of living between rural and urban residents, as the cost of providing basic services to rural areas is generally higher. Rural regions often have more limited services and higher prices for consumer goods .

In Australia the general living standards are very high, but differences remain between the country's richest and poorest. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Australia1 14,317 15,721 17,078 18,023 21,881
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
India 222 231 270 331 444
Indonesia 385 504 603 778 972
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.

Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage Share: Australia
Lowest 10% 2.0
Lowest 20% 5.9
Second 20% 12.0
Third 20% 17.2
Fourth 20% 23.6
Highest 20% 41.3
Highest 10% 25.4
Survey year: 1994
Note: This information refers to income shares by percentiles of the population and is ranked by per capita income.
SOURCE: 2000 World Development Indicators [CD-ROM].

is growing. The poorest 20 percent of households earned 1 percent of private income, while the richest 20 percent earned 50 percent. For a small minority of the population (nearly all Aboriginal), levels of education and health are very low, and these people are often at or below the poverty line. Australia has been internationally criticized for this situation. The richest minority in Australia are very wealthy and play key roles in international finance. On the whole, the majority of Australia's population would probably be defined as middle class.

Poorer families in Australia are generally characterized by financial struggle and limited opportunities. The national government has an obligation to provide basic services to such families. Australia, like many developed western economies, is partly a welfare state . The poorest citizens, and those on low wages or dependant upon care, receive social security and are granted access to free or reduced price health services, education, transportation, and housing. A poorer family in Australia will most likely live in a cheaply constructed, and often highly subsidized public housing area. Many of the basic family services provided by the Commonwealth government, such as rent assistance, childcare assistance, health care, and legal aid, are often busy and run on stretched resources. This situation is more extreme in the country's rural areas. General health levels among such families are low, primarily from inferior housing, poor diet, and increased susceptibility to the abuse of alcohol and drugs. While free education has been the hallmark of the Australian school system, budget cuts have increased the actual cost of sending children to school, with poor families having to pay for many extracurricular activities. The lifestyle of a poor family in Australia is characterized by the need to work to live and support a family in the short term. Rarely, even if members of a family are employed full time, is there the financial ability to take time off work for vacations. Access to higher education, the Internet and even basic computer knowledge, and inclusion in political decision-making are all limited.

The typical family in the higher income brackets of Australian society enjoys many more opportunities, choices, and luxuries than do poorer families. Many richer families have the choice of living outside busy urban centers in rural areas within commuting distance of the cities. Those who choose to live in the major metropolitan areas enjoy spacious, well built, modern or traditional heritage housing. Education has traditionally been a priority for the richer families, and children will often be sent to private schools where the educational standards are usually far better and more inclusive of physical and personal development programs. It is not uncommon for such children to attend boarding schools in another state or region. Almost universally, higher-income families take advantage of a well-developed private health care system, with education being a key factor in better levels of health among such families. While domestic violence, drug abuse, and support services are commonly associated with poorer families in Australia, such abuses transcend socio-economic boundaries and can also occur among the richer families. Richer families have ease of access to private vehicles, typically 1 per person in the family, and the ability to take time off work for domestic and international vacations. In contrast to poorer families, substantial and self-funded retirement plans are

Household Consumption in PPP Terms
Country All Food Colthing and footwear Fuel and power a Health care b Education b Transport & Communications Other
Australia 24 5 9 2 16 9 36
United States 13 9 9 4 6 8 51
India N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Indonesia 47 3 6 5 14 3 22
Data represent percentage of consumption in PPP terms.
a Excludes energy used for transport.
b Includes government and private expenditures.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

universal among richer families. Such families easily access personal or home information and entertainment technology. Personal computers, reliable and private access to the Internet, cellular telephones, and entertainment technologies are common and form the basis of better connections to news, information, and public opinion. Richer families have a considerable political voice through their ability to make contributions to political parties, to be informed about current affairs, and to participate in debate.

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