Don’t let policymakers tell you we don’t care about the poor

“It’s an 80-percent issue, people want to close down the borders.” – Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley

“80 percent of Australians do not support any further spending on foreign aid.” – Australian minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Sometimes, when you read the studies into attitudes toward the most needy in our world you wonder where all this heartlessness has come from.

We’re told people want DACA dismantled and immigrants deported. We’re told people want a great big wall on America’s southern border. We’re told Australians want refugees incarcerated on Pacific islands, and cuts to foreign aid.

When did everyone get so stingy?


Relying on a Lowy Institute poll that said 80% of Australians supported reductions in overseas aid, the Australian federal government recently did just that. They lowered the level of foreign aid in the national budget.

In fact, the minister responsible for international development quoted the poll itself to justify the cuts. Which must have made the folks at the Lowy Institute a bit uncomfortable. Being cited while they take money away from the neediest people in South East Asia and the Pacific wouldn’t sit well with me either. So they decided to dig a bit further. And what they found surprised them.

Yes, it’s true that when told Australian aid amounts to nearly $4 billion, 80% of people said they supported a reduction. But when asked what percentage of the overall budget makes up our foreign aid package, most respondents guessed it was around 15%. When asked what they’d like it reduced to, they suggested maybe 10% would be better.

Did you get that? Aussies want to reduce their foreign aid giving to 10% of the national budget.

Here’s the kicker. Foreign aid currently comprises 0.8% of Australia’s federal budget.

In other words, 80% of Australians don’t actually want a reduction in foreign aid at all. They want to increase it by 12 times what it is now!!

Likewise, in the United States, the White House has been using the numbers from a Harvard study that suggest 80% of Americans support the president’s agenda and want to close the borders.

But when you look more closely at that Harvard poll, it doesn’t find that 8 in 10 Americans want to “close the borders” at all. The poll asked Americans, “Do you think we should have basically open borders or do you think we need secure borders?”

Given the choice between “open borders” — a position that no mainstream political leaders are proposing — and a “secure border” — the current policy — 79% of Americans agreed that the US needs “secure borders”.

But while White House spokespeople are misquoting that 80%-want-closed-borders line, other studies show Americans are as welcoming as ever, if not more so.

That latest poll from the Washington Post found that 87 percent of Americans support “a program that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States if they arrived here as a child, completed high school or military service and have not been convicted of a serious crime.”

According to a Pew Research Center poll, 65% of Americans think immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents. Only a quarter (26%) think of immigrants as a burden—people who took jobs, health care, and housing from Americans.

That’s almost exactly the reverse of the figures from 20 years ago. In 1994, only 31% saw immigration as a force for good, while close to two-thirds (63%) said they believed immigrants hurt the US economy.

And how about the extraordinary national outcry about the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. The public protests about the removal and incarceration of migrant children led President Trump to sign an executive order to keep families together after he’d said such an order was impossible. The compassion of the American people swayed him.


I’m not saying Australians or Americans can’t be ignorant and parsimonious about the world’s poor. Plenty of Australians would be happy if we gave nothing away in foreign aid, and many Americans do agree with big walls and closed borders.

But the story isn’t as bad as it first seems. There is a vein of compassion and generosity that runs through the psyches of both cultures. Irrespective of the numbers of active members in churches, the beliefs of Christianity have seeped into our values. Deep down we believe in loving others, helping our neighbors, showing generosity to those who need it.

It’s just that our respective governments are exploiting these studies and playing to our worst instincts, not our best. They tell us over and over that they’re just doing the will of the people – that 80% of us agree with their hardline approach. Even though the figures they quote don’t tell the full story, they use them to justify taking money from the poor or closing their borders to refugees.

And it’s working. Since the current Australian government came to power in 2013, aid has been cut by close to 25%. Foreign aid is now at its lowest point in history, when measured as a proportion of national income. That means that while Australia is the fifth-most-prosperous country in the OECD, it is ranked 21st in generosity.

Australia is better than this.

And America is better than locking up kids in converted Walmart buildings.

Next time you read a poll that tells you how little we care about the needy, don’t feel so alone. Don’t fall for the trick that you’re part of a shrinking minority that still has compassion for the poor, for refugees, for those driven to their knees by circumstances beyond their control.

American basketball coach Red Auerbach once bemoaned the game’s increasing reliance on player stats by announcing, “I don’t believe in statistics. There are too many factors that can’t be measured. You can’t measure a ballplayer’s heart.”

I’d like policymakers and politicians to heed that advice. You can’t measure the voters’ hearts. There is a fundamental desire to help our fellow humans that no poll or survey can diminish. Stop contorting the statistics to support your preferred policy outcomes.

As the British politician George Canning said (way back in 1827), “I can prove anything with statistics but the truth.”

And to those of you who do care, who do believe in the teachings of Christ about loving your neighbor, turning the other cheek, forgiving your enemies, releasing the captives, and preaching the good news, now is the time to show yourselves!

Keep writing letters to the editor. Keep calling your politicians. Keep marching and meeting and conspiring and serving.

Until no one believes that 80% of us don’t care for anyone but ourselves.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t let policymakers tell you we don’t care about the poor

  1. I think we as individuals do care and are compassionate but when it comes to large organisations including churches, budgets, funding and an individuals desire to survive in an organisation sadly over ride the love of the poor ( in whatever sense you want to interpret). After being a chaplain in the inner city for the past 3 years working with the poor my role was the first to go in a restructuring process as it doesn’t generate income. My sadness and compassion is with the poor who Jesus was with on the Mount when he delivered his message of love and hope to them.

    1. All power to you, brother, in whatever the next step might be for you.

  2. I totally agree Mike.

    Ask the right questions and you can get any answer you want. I don’t trust any data that any government cites; I always assume that it was government funded and therefore biased.

    There’s no such thing a “disinterest third party” – they’re always on the side that pays best.

  3. A few decades ago when the Australian government was slashing the aid budget, all the non-government aid agencies got together and promoted a postcard campaign among their donors. Thousands of Australians who responded to object to the cuts and sent so many postcards to Canberra that the parliamentary postal system and Australia Post said ‘please stop!’. I loved the fact that the ‘normal’ business of government was drowning in one loud community shout. Politicians and bureaucrats alike were stunned at the size of the response. They had thought then that people wouldn’t care.

    Yes, that was in the days before Get Up and online protest. We also had people go to their local MP’s office. The fact remains to this day that politicians take more notice of PERSONAL individual communications than petitions. But today we have governments that are less concerned with actual public opinion if it’s not measured in a poll (often with a skewed question). And maybe we all are more cynical – believing our voice will accomplish little or nothing (as it has largely with asylum issues). This is a danger to democracy as a whole.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking blog Mike.

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