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The Australian Public Service (APS) is tasked with resolving complicated policy issues. The complexity of the problems is such that they are referred to as ‘wicked’ problems due to their resistance to resolution. Some of the main ‘wicked’ problems include obesity, social inequality, land degradation, climate change and indigenous advantage. ‘Wicked’ problems are described using common characteristics such as their lack of clear definition because their nature and extent depends on who is asked, presence of multiple interdependencies and causalities, efforts to address them often results into unanticipated consequences, lack of definite solutions, they are unstable, they involve behavior change and mostly result from chronic policy failure. This paper focuses on inequality as a ‘wicked’ problem, the attempts that have been made to solve the issue, and an idea to help address the problem (Western, 1983, 45).
Income inequality and wealth inequality are the two key measures of inequality in nations (Australian Council of Social Service, 2015, 11). In Australia, both are greatly undistributed with a person in the top 20 percent income category earning about five times and having about 70 percent more wealth more than the one at the bottom 20 percent (Habibis & Walter, 2009, 78). Inequality is harmful in every society because it limits the peoples’ ability to participate in economic activities and hinders social cohesion. When fewer people own resources, there is reduced economic activity as the minority people put up businesses, construct houses, and acquire land and purchase goods and services. Besides, inequality compromises on democracy since money and power determine whose interests are given priority and who participates in various events. Australia lacks legal protection for basic human rights making the problem of social inequality more magnified and harder to tame. The level of income inequality in Australia is over the OECD average although it is lower for other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States (Habibis & Walter, 2009, 78).
The Australian government has made various attempts in addressing the disparities through various means such as through progressive taxes, universal access to education, a system of wage regulation, full employment policies and the creation of social safety nets (Australian Public service commission, 2007, 9). However, most of these methods have not completely addressed disparities and inequalities. The efforts have, however, moved a big stride in addressing the wicked problem. For instance, progressive taxes are used to redistribute income so that those who have higher incomes pay a higher percentage of taxes than those who have lower incomes (Australian Council of Social Service, 2015, 28). However, this approach is not sufficient to address inequality because the nature of the problem is complex and has multiple causes. Furthermore, there are negative consequences of high progressive taxation. When working for an extra dollar does not give any incentive, one would prefer not to work that hard so they would rather spend more time on rest and vacation leading to slow economic growth. Also, the use of progressive taxes results in a moral hazard whereby some individuals may not work to improve their welfare because the government offers insurance against poverty, disability, and unemployment. Thus, they remain dependent on the government for support causing even more expenditure of revenue that would be used to implement other developing projects. Therefore, the attempt of governments using progressive taxes to manage social inequality remains unsuccessful (Fagan & Bryan, 1991, 29-30).
In addition, social safety nets like cash benefits have been used to decrease the gap between the rich and the poor with merely any success (Dorling & Dorling, 2015, 24). One of the reasons for their failure is that they are too meager to create any significant difference between the two extreme wealth groups. For instance, in the United States, the entire budget set aside for low-income households is one-tenth of 1% of the nation’s economic output (Dorling & Dorling, 2015, 24). Even after including direct government services plus tax breaks, the share of economic output dedicated to family assistance remains small compared to the amount required to make notable changes in inequality. Another reason for lack of success of social safety nets is the existence of ‘ladder of opportunities’ among the high-income households. As much as the government tries to uplift the position of the poor, their children have limited opportunities compared to their age mates from the well-off families. The differences do not arise from lack of basic education or lack of talent, but the child from a more economically stable household is likely to get assistance and support from the parents through college, their first car, internship and work connections hence having a better economic outcome compared to the one from a low-income family. Therefore, the sufficiency of safety nets is only up to the provision of basic needs which leaves a big gap for the beneficiaries to fill in order to compete with the others.
Further still, the approach of using universal education has borne no fruits in curbing the problem of social inequality. Instead, inequality has taken center stage in the education sector hence increasing the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. A report by the Public Education Foundation unveiled that students in disadvantaged schools lag behind their counterparts in ‘wealthy’ schools or those in other nations (Wilkins, 2015, 94). Notably, children whose parents attained poor results or left school early were behind their colleagues from their entry into school, and they mostly had low socioeconomic backgrounds. Therefore, the education system is not effective in managing inequality but rather propagating it because of using general approaches instead of applying targeted teaching strategies.
Successfully managing such a wicked problem like social inequality requires a reassessment of the conventional ways used to solve problems. Without putting all the blame on politicians and economists, it is necessary first to acknowledge that inequality will involve significant structural changes to both economic and political systems. The changes are also expected to be costly because they will go against the politicians who are the highest beneficiaries of existing paradigms. It could be time to consider how we view our world before coming up with the ultimate solution to the problem to form a common baseline. Understanding our varying worldviews will enhance the formulation of policies that favor the majority of the people and hence their actual success.
Presently, there are seemingly two views of inequality where one is the Left, and the other is Right (Alam & Imran, 2015, 346). Now the Left view inequality as a doubtlessly wrong thing and make some effort to deal with it while the Right knows the evils of inequalities but do not pay attention so that they can continue reaping its fruits. However, to make the fight against inequality successful, it is critical that people understand its evils and then targeted policies can be introduced. For instance, instead of just giving out money to the less fortunate, they must also meet a given criterion that contributes to economic growth. Importantly, policymakers need to understand that solving or managing wicked problems is a sort of evolving art and not quick fixes. Thoughtful considerations must be made to capture the big picture and include the various interrelated causal factors causing the problem.
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