Economic dignity: a way forward

We turn to our principles to determine the best course of action when we are uncertain. Principles can bring clarity to complex situations and they can help us understand how to be better when we make mistakes.

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Economic dignity is one principle used to understand the role systems and structures play in a person’s life – never more important than at times like this when a pandemic has dramatically changed Australia’s economic system with a profound impact on households across the country.

"Economic dignity helps us understand the policy responses so far to COVID-19.”

Economic dignity helps us understand the policy responses so far to COVID-19 – both in terms of who has been included and how they have been included. It is centred on the way dignity connects to the economy based on four main components.

In my work as the first ANZ Tony Nicholson Research Fellow with the Brotherhood of St Laurence I developed principles to guide our understanding of financial wellbeing and financial capabilities.


The first component of economic dignity is drawn from the notion of dignity as intrinsic to all people.

This idea suggests everyone deserves to have meaningful control over their own life. Generally, we think about this in the context of someone preventing someone else from making their own choices. However, it’s important to recognise systems and structures can also prevent people from acting autonomously.

Morevoer, it’s important to be understanding of the diverse reasoning people present in the choices they make.

Of course, acting freely and with economic dignity requires people to make informed choices. Financial literacy programs like MoneyMinded can support economic dignity by helping people to understand the options available to them.


The second component of economic dignity draws on the idea people can be awarded dignity through the position they occupy in society.

In the past, dignity was largely associated with positions of significance to the state but increasingly this has shifted towards being associated with wealth.

This aspect of economic dignity highlights the harm of stigmatising people because of their economic position.


The third component of economic dignity is drawn from the idea of dignity as serving a function to society. Everyone should be able to do something they see as serving a purpose.

This doesn’t have to mean working a paid job – parents provide a function of great significance to society. The point is everyone should value the role they serve in society and people should not be forced to serve in roles they do not find meaningful.


The fourth component of economic dignity comes from the idea of dignity as manner or bearing. People should not be forced to trade off their essential needs in the economic choices they make.

A person should not be forced to decide between paying their rent or having food to eat for the week. Having to make these choices can be harmful to a person’s sense of self by driving them to actively choose a course of action where they don’t meet their basic needs.

Looking ahead

Taken together, these four components of economic dignity provide guiding ideas for a fairer economy.

An economy where people are treated with respect, have meaningful control over the choices they make in life, are able to serve in a role valued by them and society, and where everyone’s essential needs are met.

Dr Jeremiah Brown is the first ANZ Tony Nicholson Research Fellow

Dr Brown completed the one-year fellowship at the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Research and Policy Centre in Melbourne. You can read more of his research here.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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