The Spear remembers that in his final year of primary school a group of three bullies implied that he came from a rich family. The taunts went something along the lines of “Yeah he probably gets his butler to …,” and impersonating his father who they assumed had a posh British accent. He is not entirely sure why the assumption of riches was made, but he can only guess it was because The Spear performed well academically, and generally followed the rules (neither of which they could or would choose to claim).
The reality was that The Spear came from a middle (possibly lower-middle) socio-economic household. He remembers more than one fellow student who once visited his family’s house (a semi-derelict structure located on a flood plain, hard-up against a railway line and within the ‘smell-zone’ of an abattoir in a ‘lower class’ neighbourhood) remarking on how small it was, and the peculiar odour of dog it harboured. The Spear didn’t really mind any of these things however, and didn’t even think of their possible implications as to his family’s perceived ‘status’ until he was a teenager.
While it is likely that the bullies came from poorer households, their comparative material poverty couldn’t have been too far removed from The Spear’s own, given their attendance at the same lower-tier private school. What is far more likely is that they came from households impoverished in the arena of education – with neither of their parents likely to have attended university (whereas in the case of The Spear he was 1 from 2). And dare he say it; there may have also been some significant differentiating genetic predispositions between households of bully and bullee.
Two out of three of those bullies died in their early twenties in deathly drug spirals, and The Spear doesn’t know what happened to the third. The question on The Spear’s mind currently, is: would equalisation of the material wealth of the bullies’ households to that of The Spear (or better yet, any amount of material welfare) have made any difference at all regarding the life choices of the bullies and their eventual destination?
Of course it is impossible to know for sure, but The Spear, looking to his own empirical evidence, thinks that material welfare can only go so far to delivering outcomes - and at a certain point may even do more damage than good.
Case 1 – The Neighbours from Hell
The Spear’s parents still inhabit the same house described earlier. The house next door is owned by what they call the ‘Housing Commission’. If you’ve never heard of that term before, consider yourself very lucky indeed.
The house itself is solid, double-storey brick construction, and is regularly maintained by the Council. It has a decent backyard, a brand new fence, is not hard-up to the railway track and has freshly clipped lawn. Throughout The Spear’s childhood years the tenants came and went – single mothers with a handful of kids from a handful of fathers and a pot-smoking boyfriend being the typical family unit.
For the last few years, however, the tenants have been particularly troublesome; a couple of unemployed, raving ice-addicts with a son in tow. With their basic needs taken care of by the state, they have ample time on their hands to get up to no good, and regularly fight in the streets, light fires, drive dangerously, graffiti public property and intimidate their neighbours. They appear stuck in a cycle of self-destruction that no amount of material possessions seems likely to conquer.
Case 2 – Celebrity Self-Destruction
From lotto winners who have blown it all, to actors who hit the big time and end up as drug addicts (here's a list of celebrity drug overdoses if you really want), it seems that an abundance of material wealth may do nothing to inhibit an addictive personality, and may instead finance an unhealthy lifestyle.
Case 3 – Chekhov, The Three Sisters / The Cherry Orchard
Ok – so maybe not exactly a real example, but nevertheless timeless classics of the stage.
I these plays set in early 20th century Russia, Chekhov has a way of highlighting the peculiar suffering that ennui can inflict upon individuals. Indeed, you get the sense that many of his melancholic characters are mere steps away from drug abuse or worse. The plays suggest that man must live a productive life if he is to attribute meaning to his existence, even if it is only in the most general sense of creating an indistinct ‘better’ future [this was in the lead up to the Russian Revolution, so perhaps there is some communist theology buried within it all].
While some level of welfare is obviously a good thing if we are to maintain a base standard of living, it is clear that material welfare alone has its limits, and may even be harmful to some.
If the incentive to work and improve one’s lot is reduced to the point where receiving material welfare becomes preferable - or even comparable - it is debatable that more harm may be being done than good. It encourages the development of a class, not too dissimilar in terms of material wealth from the working poor, but one that is disengaged from society and without a sense of meaning or purpose. And idle hands are wont to do the devil’s work.
Non-devil work, rather than welfare, seems preferable if at all possible. In order to re-establish the incentive to work, there are only two real options: decrease benefits for those relying on welfare or lift the burden on the working poor in some way (for instance most taxi-drivers are working for about $5-10/hr once welfare deductions and tax are accounted for).
As the last budget disaster has clearly shown, the latter of these two options is more politically palatable. One hopes that ‘the powers that be’ can find the courage to propose some genuine reforms aimed at reducing tax breaks (superannuation salary sacrificing, family trusts for example) and other concessions that only the truly wealthy are in a position to take advantage of, in order to lift that burden in some way.