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Poverty and Wealth

In the early 21st century, most Melburnians, drawing on a stock of images, common knowledge and observation, could create their own map of a metropolitan area with recognisably 'rich' and 'poor' areas, based on the contrasts between a generally poorer west and north and a more prosperous east and south. They could describe the dynamics of more recent city growth: the increasingly complex mix of genteel and down-at-heel in the inner suburbs, a comfortable middle ring of 1920s bungalows and postwar subdivisions, and the spread of more or less 'prestige' estates in the growth corridors to the west, north and south-east. Most could also describe the even finer patterns of the city's social geography, those subtle gradations of housing and neighbourhoods, names and layered histories, which make East Malvern 'better' than Chadstone, or Gladstone Park a step up from its neighbour Broadmeadows.

These physical signals of inequality and distance, first etched within the boundaries of a small colonial port, were reproduced in the 'Marvellous Melbourne' of the 19th century and the ever-expanding metropolis of the 20th. A snapshot of Melburnians' fortunes at any moment in the city's history suggests a roughly consistent characterisation of the wealthy: it has always been important to own property (preferably in large amounts) and to make canny investments in land or buoyant industries. Inheritance is an even safer bet; in the absence of a rich parent, marrying well is also a sensible investment. The wellsprings of poverty will also seem depressingly familiar: unemployment and low wages, large families, recent immigration, illness and injury, the desertion or death of a wage-earner, or the effects and the legacies of discrimination and prejudice. And, at any particular moment in time, most of the city's residents inhabited a more or less secure middle ground of aspiration and anxiety, with small victories and temporary setbacks shaping their search for a security that was more highly prized than great wealth.

Such snapshots are, of course, misleading. While wealth and poverty have been permanent features of the city's landscape, the differences between rich and poor and the prospects of the people in between are not static. They measure the unequal but unstable distribution of economic rewards and penalties, the changing abilities of the well-off to preserve their advantages and of the less well-off to secure their own share, the extent to which different governments have seen reducing inequality as one of their responsibilities, and the uneven effectiveness of measures to redistribute wealth and alleviate poverty. In a world of chances and accidents, wealth and poverty measure the vagaries of fortune as much as judgment. An economy of booms and busts sometimes sharpened and sometimes blunted the miseries of deprivation, widened or narrowed the gaps between the richest and the poorest, rewarded a few and ruined others. Melbourne's wealthy have not always been adept at maintaining their wealth, or at passing it to a new generation. Wealth could come from modest beginnings, poverty from unexpected misfortune, with the result that less tangible assets such as 'gentility', an independent school education, the 'right' religion and the right social connections have always counted for much in the finer details of the social hierarchy.

Melbourne has always been a city of immigrants. A few have come with wealth, but most brought only aspirations to a new society more fluid and open than its European counterparts. The replication of Old World inequalities based on privilege, birth and position was tempered by the desire of most newcomers for security and modest comfort, and by their ability to have those desires represented politically in their new world. Yet to be poor in such a society has often brought greater penalties, not least those deriving from the supposition that the origins of poverty are to be found in the character flaws and lethargy of its victims.

While myths of an egalitarian society have often hidden them from view, the poor and those who advocate on their behalf have confronted comfortable Melburnians with the facts of inequality and the injustice of poverty, demanding, with some success, access not only to some of the wealth they work to create, but also to its sources and its benefits: better education, decent housing and protection against misfortune. Discoveries of persistent inequality have punctuated Melbourne's history and given rise to some of the most important reflections and representations of its future, from 19th-century exposés of Melbourne's 'outcasts' to the Brotherhood of St Laurence's flickering images of 1930s slum life and the more recent depictions of juvenile gangs, drugs and a supposed 'underclass' in Footscray, Springvale and other working-class suburbs.

The existence and persistence of wealth and poverty are important parts of the city's history, present and future. The desire for land created the first European settlement. For its first 50 years Melbourne remained a predominantly commercial settlement, where wealth was tied to owning land and especially to gaining a foothold in the flow of goods to markets. Making money was enough to secure a social position, but in the 1830s and 1840s those at the top of Melbourne's emerging social hierarchy attempted to signal their distinction in exclusive clubs and mansions. However, a small, unstable trade economy was more likely to impoverish than to enrich those who had only their labour to sell; in 1843, amid a sharp downturn, the Melbourne Town Council met a deputation representing those in the colony who 'have not the means to purchase food for families'. Confident that colonial prosperity was widely shared among those with enterprise and energy enough to make their way, the Port Phillip Gazette suggested that the protestors were really asking for higher wages they did not deserve.

The 1850s gold rush overwhelmed any prospect that Melbourne would replicate the social distinctions and privileges of Great Britain. Discovery made rich men out of a few prospectors, but the wealth that flowed from gold was more likely to enrich the traders, merchants, builders and suppliers than the diggers themselves. Profits built fine houses, and would be eventually reflected in fine public buildings, but they further destabilised the local economy and often impoverished not only the unsuccessful diggers but also many of those they left behind. The prospects for the destitute and the deserted - especially women and children - were grim indeed, and by the end of the 1850s, with its benevolent and orphan asylums, Melbourne was erecting the visible signals of its poverty as well as its wealth.

Over the next 30 years the city assumed the social and spatial stratifications of a modern metropolis. The 19th-century urban economy sorted people geographically into a rough hierarchy of security and wealth: the poorest, increasingly displaced from the centre of the city by commercial and industrial development, clustered in the tiny houses of Fitzroy, Collingwood and North Melbourne, while the wealthiest consolidated their 'Melbourne society' in suburbs such as Toorak and Kew, and looked for each other at the 'right' end of Collins Street or at the fashionable events that marked the rhythms of their urban world. Yet the city's prosperity remained precarious, and the growing numbers of people dependent on factories, construction sites and workshops for their living could always be undone by illness or unemployment.

The 1890s depression dashed the hopes and aspirations of many once-comfortable Melburnians and scarred this generation with an experience of failure. However, with no guarantees of support or help beyond inadequate relief funds and the uncertainties of hard-pressed private charities, Melbourne's poor paid the highest price. The generation that experienced the 1890s depression grasped something of the relationship between wealth and poverty that had been muted by the story of 'Marvellous Melbourne' and colonial progress. Certainly, part of their concern was the prospect that poor people - often seen as almost naturally diseased, criminal and dependent - might affect the lives and fortunes of the wealthy. Yet the gains were important, and Melbourne's inequalities were reshaped by significant changes: minimum wages and a 'family wage', the principle of applying direct taxation in order to fund social welfare, urban improvement and city planning, better sanitation, clean water and the regulation of housing standards.

Of course, the coexistence of wealth and poverty was never seriously challenged, and nor were the basic dynamics of an economy that rewarded some and impoverished others. The prosperity of the 1920s looked real enough, but its limits were savagely exposed by the 1930s depression. Again, while such a widespread economic crisis also picked off those who might have assumed themselves safe, its most frequent victims were the poor and the vulnerable.

If the great depression provided the arguments for direct intervention in the distribution of wealth and poverty, the mobilising imperatives of World War II and of postwar reconstruction provided a means. Once again, many of the most significant influences were more general, especially the federal government's commitment to full employment as the central plank of economic policy, and the advantages of a sustained economic boom. Support for home-ownership, in a context of gradually rising wages and secure and often public employment for men, unleashed a wave of new subdivisions all around the suburban fringe. Dotted among them were estates developed by the Housing Commission of Victoria, most obviously in places such as Broadmeadows, Heidelberg, Doveton and Preston, but also in many of the southern and eastern suburbs. Into some of these estates flowed people ejected from areas labelled as slums, where high-rise flats followed the bulldozer through good and bad housing alike.

There was never the kind of all-out assault on social inequality envisaged by postwar reformers. That would have required a more active levy upon the resources of the wealthy. Large public programs could prove themselves as paternalistic and unwieldy as private charities, and for all the talk of a new 'golden age', the distance between being wealthy and being poor in Melbourne remained very wide. Studies in the late 1960s confirmed that poverty still blighted the lives of the elderly, supporting mothers, the infirm and the most recent immigrants. Despite two decades of sustained economic prosperity, 15% of Melburnians still lived close enough to the edge to be considered relatively poor, and more than one in 20 remained absolutely poor.

The Whitlam federal government's programs of the early 1970s and the social welfare initiatives of the new Cain government in Victoria in the early 1980s created some improvements in Melbourne's western and north-western suburbs. Yet the inequality between rich and poor grew during the last quarter of the 20th century, increasingly reflecting differences between young and old, home-owners and tenants, and the securely and insecurely employed. At the start of the new century, it is still a bad idea to be unemployed, to receive low wages, to become ill or injured, to be a recent immigrant (especially from a poor country), to be a lone parent, to be young and have neither a good education nor well-heeled parents or to grow old without the means to provide for yourself. Contemporary wealth and poverty might look different in some ways, and the rich and the poor live a little farther apart in a larger metropolis, but it remains impossible to understand Melbourne without grasping the great differences and distances between rich and poor Melburnians.

Mark Peel

Peel, Mark, The lowest rung: voices of Australian poverty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003. Details