Fairness, freedom and place

I have been thinking for a while that maybe Vinson’s post code analysis work in Australia got policy moving not just because it fitted with other policy agendas at the time (Adams 2009: 97) and it was supported by Jesuit Social Services, but because it showed as false the suggestion that while inequality was not nice it was fair. Analysis that demonstrates place based poverty does not necessarily demonstrate inter-generational poverty, but that does not stop people, including policy makers, making that connection (e.g. Mowbray 2009: 120). (I am not saying that inter-generational poverty is not real, in fact my interest in trying to understand how its existence elicits the responses that it does is one of the things that got me interested in doing a PhD in the first place.) Inter-generational poverty challenges neoliberalism because suddenly you have a group of people whose interests are not being met by growing the economy without any redistribution.

Perhaps for place based poverty to be unfair, if the terms of fairness are determined by the standards of neoliberalism, it does not even need to be linked with intergenerational poverty. If living in a certain place puts you in a certain category of hardship then that does not suggest you have the freedom to choose something else. It is interesting that the policy reaction is not to displace place as a significant category for people though universal service provision or financial redistribution, but rather to implement place based policies to turn place into a force for good instead of evil.

While I am sure nobody needs the point about fairness to be made any more explicit, I will provide some examples anyway. I once worked with someone who had grown up in a family where his sister was abused. He could be a rather challenging person at times. When he became very unwell he would become disorientated and make references to what happened in his family. People who had spent time with him when he was in that state were suddenly a lot less willing to express disapproval of his actions the rest of the time. What happened in this family was not fair for anybody to experience, so rather than interpreting his actions as being directed at ‘us’ we are willing to interpret them as the only coping strategies he has been free to develop.

I went to a well-off Catholic school and more than once in first year lectures everyone who went to a non-government school was asked to put their hand up to demonstrate that it was an unrepresentative and elitist university. It was a fair enough point, but I am sure the shame experienced by some of the students with their hands up encouraged them to join the Young Libs with their lunchtime Crownies, and to never do another sociology subject, rather than fostering any sort of anti-capitalist epiphany. However, perhaps those lecturers were motivated by a desire to show students who possibly had less high school friends at university that they were on ‘their side’. I am including this as an example because I do not remember any lecturer asking for those people who went to a selective government school to put their hands up or allow people who went to non-government schools on scholarships to put their hands down. Now, I agree that the education is unfair and I certainly had a huge advantage going to the school that I did when it came to my year 12 marks. However, what I am using this example to reflect on is that certain types of difference are seen as unfair and I think that these types of difference come from a particular understanding of what counts as an individual and as individual freedom.

This type of thinking extends into a lot of areas. Mental health issues are seen to be made less confronting when they are explained as a chemical imbalance in the brain. Obesity is reacted to differently if you think it is the ‘fault’ of the individual. &etc

My question is what is it about ‘place’ that makes it corrupted if it contributes to things considered to be ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’? Why is it when a place it is identified with higher rates of poverty the place needs to be rehabilitated back to its proper role – being that of the basis for people being ‘good’ citizens? Is it when individuals are able to be ‘free’ that place becomes invisible?

Adams, D. 2009. “The public policy of social capital in Australia,” in Social capital and social justice : Critical Australian perspectives. Edited by G. Woolcock and L. Manderson, pp. 95-110. Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press.

Mowbray, M. 2009. “Faking social capital,” in Social capital and social justice : Critical Australian perspectives. Edited by G. Woolcock and L. Manderson, pp. 111-126. Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press.


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