Spatial inequality: poverty and the income gap
In the study of geography, the spatial dimension is used to describe patterns of where things are and spatial analysis attempts to explain why they are there (refer to Topic One, Chapter Two). Taking a spatial approach therefore involves comparing two different geographical areas in relation to a particular variable. The aim of this approach is to detect inequalities between different areas and to then find ways of amending these inequalities, thereby making distribution of resources and services more equitable (even) between populations. In this chapter the spatial variable to be discussed is poverty. Key indicators of poverty are income, level of education and unemployment levels.
What is poverty?
Poverty is a condition of living which is difficult to measure and almost impossible to conclusively define. People living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa may lack safe housing, struggle to find food and have no access to potable (drinkable) water. This standard of living is known as 'absolute poverty'. As standards of living in countries like Australia are generally much higher than this, poverty here is measured relatively. Determining whether or not a person in Australia is living in 'relative poverty' is assessed by comparing their quality of life to a given benchmark, which is usually the level at which the majority of the population lives.
People living in poverty in Australia could therefore be viewed as those whose standards of living are low compared with those of most other people, or people who face significant challenges in meeting day-to-day needs that most people find easy to meet. The same can be said for assessing equality in a society. Often people will use the term 'relative equality', which is a way of defining equality by comparing people's standards of living and access to services with those of the majority of the population.
Hidden pockets of poverty
In developed countries such as Australia, poverty is often hidden by economic growth and inaccurate statistics describing standards of living. Australia is an industrialised nation, whose economy is now firmly based on the principles of the free market. This means that there is lessening government intervention into the way wealth is generated and distributed - a component of the political ideology known as neo-liberalism.
Operating under this economic framework over the past decade, Australia has experienced a period of strong economic growth. While statistically this may have reflected well upon Australia at the turn of the millennium, these figures can be quite misleading. This is because they do not take into account that the wealth and resulting social advancements that can be traced to this economic growth have not trickled down to everyone. See image 1
An analysis of overall national wealth, therefore, never truly gives an accurate picture of affluence within a nation, which varies enormously from region to region and from person to person. While many people have an extremely high quality of life in Australia, the suffering of those who do not is frequently concealed or misunderstood. It can also go largely unnoticed by mainstream society and is sometimes ignored by politicians because of the small number of people it does affect.
Poverty in Australia
In 2005 it was estimated that as many as 2.4 million people in Australia were living in relative poverty. The main factors which contribute to poverty in Australia are inequity in the education system (which means some people have less opportunity to enter the skilled labour force), the casualisation of the workforce (which has meant that people have less job security), and reduced government spending on services which are of benefit to the community.
The people most affected by poverty in Australia are those with low levels of formal education, the long-term unemployed and others who have restricted access to high-paying work. Certain demographic groups tend to fall into these categories. In 2000 it was recorded that Indigenous Australians, for example, had an unemployment rate of 17.6 per cent - much higher than the national average of 7.3 per cent. Another group more likely to live in relative poverty are first-generation immigrants and refugees, many of whom arrive in Australia with few language skills and less support networks than Australian-born residents. Elderly people, disabled people and single parents also record higher rates of poverty. See animation 1
Why is poverty a spatial issue?
The reason poverty can be considered a spatial issue is two-fold. People of a similar
socio-economic background tend to live in the same areas because the amount of money a person makes usually, but not always, influences their decision as to where to purchase or rent a home. At the same time, the area in which a person is born or lives can determine the level of access they will have to quality education and employment opportunities. As education and income can influence settlement patterns and also be influenced by settlement patterns, they can therefore be considered causes and effects of spatial inequality and poverty. See image 2
Urban spatial inequality
Spatial inequality is most prevalent in larger cities because there is more demographic diversity and more inequity between distinct geographical areas, particularly in terms of access to infrastructure such as schools and hospitals (refer to Chapter Two).
Sydney provides an example of a large urban environment with a high level of spatial inequality. Suburban pockets of poverty can be found on the city's fringes, in certain parts of Sydney's south-west for example, and there are also pockets of poverty in much more central areas. The less-affluent (poorer) areas are generally higher in unemployment, welfare-dependency, single-parent families, substance (drug and alcohol) abuse and crime, than other Sydney suburbs. These are also often the areas in which overseas migrants and refugees chose to settle, because the real estate is much cheaper and the ethnic and racial composition is generally more diverse.
Unemployment figures from the 2001 Census revealed vast differences between many areas of Australia. Particularly alarming were certain areas of Sydney. The Glenquarie Housing Commission Estate in Sydney's south-west had an unemployment rate of 26.4 per cent; the national unemployment rate at that time was only 7.1 per cent. The highly publicised riots which occurred in this same area in 2004-05 were an example of some of the violence-related problems that can result if social inequalities are not dealt with.
Effects of poverty on social cohesion
Poverty has economic and social impacts. Sometimes, instead of being described as living in poverty, people in Australia who do not possess the living standards of the majority, are thought to be socially marginalised or socially isolated. This is because they may feel excluded from benefits of society that the mainstream enjoy, whether or not this is because of where they live or the amount of money they have.
The widening the gap between rich and poor Australians is likely to increase this sense of social isolation, which will no doubt negatively impact upon social cohesion. This is particularly true of larger urban centres because the inequalities between different areas are much more obvious when they are in the same town or city. The more observable inequalities become, the more likely people are to directly compare their standards of living with those of others around them. This can have the effect of reducing the sense of mutual belonging and respect that is important for maintaining social cohesion in any community, however large or small. See image 3