Sloppy analysis is dividing us into the deserving and undeserving

Being no expert on domestic violence, I looked at the Glenn inquiry’s The People’s Report to see what it had to say about causes. I had expected a summary of the research literature but there was none. All the report did was tell of people’s (often moving) experiences and what they thought should be done. It was anecdote rather than analysis.

Ultimately the report’s recommendations were ambulances revving up at the bottom of the cliff to deal with failures; there was no attention to why people were falling off at the top or whether we could reduce the numbers. Too often that is the context of our policy discussions in areas I know a little about. Like poverty.

Sure, we measure the number of the bodies falling down the cliff, and sure, the ambulances at the bottom jostle to pick up the wounded. But there is surprisingly little discussion on the causes of poverty – what is happening at the top of the cliff. That is true even in the report on child poverty to the Children’s Commissioner by the (so-called) Expert Group (I question not their skills in the ambulance department) and by Jonathon Boston and Simon Chapple in Child Poverty in New Zealand.

You know the answer as to why people are falling off into poverty; they havn’t got enough income, although you may be a little more pressed to explain why they have not. But if income deficiency is the primary cause of poverty is it not logical to increase the income of the poor? That is not the way we are tackling poverty though.

Instead the proposed solutions are strange. Boston and Chapple seem to think we can solve the problem by getting mothers out to work. Had they been more analytic they would have noticed that already there are families with working mothers who are in poverty. Indeed they would have realised that there is a major deficiency in the way we measure poverty because we do not deduct childcare costs from the income of working families. That means we underestimate the numbers of working families paying for childcare which are in poverty. Ooops.

The government seems to have taken to their approach. It claims it is going to target families which are not ‘dependent on the state’ (a confusing – even Orwellian – phrase). That means that it will leave on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff those who are unable to work in the paid labour force. Meanwhile those who can move off the social security benefit will not be nearly as well off as it seems, since they will have childcare costs – explicitly, but also, as every parent in the paid labour force knows, there are other private costs and stresses that go with them.

The strategy is a splendid way to be seen to be doing something about poverty without spending too much money. It will probably not have much effect either but by the time that becomes obvious to everyone, all those implementing it – the politicians, the experts, the policy advisers, the ambulance drivers – will have retired and be unaccountable for their failures.

There is an insidious side to the approach. It splits families into two categories, of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Those deemed deserving – those not ‘dependent’ on the state – will get support and the undeserving rest will lie there on the rocks, broken and bleeding.

This distinction was rejected by the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security , which said ‘need and degree of need’ was the primary test for support. From the 1990s the principle was eroded – in the benefit cuts of 1991, in the introduction of the Child Tax Credit in 1995 and in the Working for Families package of 2005. (So both Labour and National made the distinction.)

Now you may have a strong view about the wickedness (or otherwise) of parents on the benefit. You might even be keen to push them over the cliff. But think about this. There may, or may not, be undeserving parents, but what about their children? Are the children of undeserving parents also undeserving – suffering a kind of original sin? Isn’t the government's approach condemning them to poverty in childhood – inferior health, inferior education and greater use of the justice facilities and social services? Wont that lead to a deprived adulthood and – perish the thought – to their children also suffering deprivation? Are we not loading the sins of the mother (such as they are) unto the third generation?

We are already doing this. It is a couple of decades since the Richardson-Shipley income cuts on the poor. It turns out that just about all the increase in inequality that happened then impacted on children and their parents; very few other adults seem to have been affected. The children penalised then are now grown-up adults with poor health and work records and over-represented in today’s justice and health systems. It is now the turn of many of their children to suffer poverty too.

That cycle will continue until we address poverty by giving children and their parents adequate support based on need and the degree of need. Sure there are other things that should be done, but a basic adequate income is the most important – the strongest – fence at the top of the cliff.

The future looks promising for New Zealand ambulance drivers.

Comments (28)

by Nick Gibbs on November 03, 2014
Nick Gibbs

But how do you ensure the extra money goes to the children in need and not simply wasted by the parents. I have seen episodes where children have needed glasses and  these have been made up, via winz funding but the parents refused to collect the glasses saying they didn't have gas for the car. The had gas to get cigarettes however. Its experiences like these that leave me jaded towards the concept of child poverty.

by BeShakey on November 03, 2014
BeShakey

I have seen episodes where children have needed glasses and  these have been made up, via winz funding but the parents refused to collect the glasses saying they didn't have gas for the car. The had gas to get cigarettes however.

"It was anecdote rather than analysis."

by Susan St John on November 03, 2014
Susan St John

Brian

Thank you for idenifiying the divisions into the deserving and undeserving poor in family policy especially in policy on tax credits for children.This is at the heart of the atrocious picture of child poverty. We dont care about how the old spend their money and we dont divide them into the deserving and undeserving. We just give everyone the same basic amount and lo and behold we dont have an elder poverty problem. Of course there will always be old and young families that face many obstacles and need specialist help. But lets not create basket cases out of those who could cope with just a fairer share of money 

by Nick Gibbs on November 03, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@Beshakey

"It was anecdote rather than analysis."

True, and it's not to say that most parents don't make huge sacrifices for their children. Yet I have seen more instances than just this one of parents not working in their children's best interests and simply giving these parents more money isn't going to solve the problem.



by Susan St John on November 03, 2014
Susan St John

"simply giving these parents more money isn't going to solve the problem"

This is a wonderful rationale for withholding money from the vast bulk of parents who do have the best interests of their children at heart.

If giving a pension to an alcoholic means they spend more on alcohol should we cut everyone's pension?

by Nick Gibbs on November 03, 2014
Nick Gibbs

 This is a wonderful rationale for withholding money from the vast bulk of parents who do have the best interests of their children at heart. 

I hope the vast bulk of parents can support their children without help from the state. If they can't why did they have children in the first place? Why should the taxpayer have to support people who won't take responsibility for their own choices? 

 

 

 

by Eliza on November 03, 2014
Eliza

@Nick

Here are some examples of help from the state which my husband and I benefit from, and without which we would struggle to support our child:

  • interest free student loans
  • free prenatal medical care
  • 14 weeks partially paid maternity leave

I suspect we're nothing ususual, and that the vast bulk of parents absolutely could not support their children without the social welfare state. Nor should we be expected to. Children aren't hobbies. 

by Fentex on November 03, 2014
Fentex

Why should the taxpayer have to support people who won't take responsibility for their own choices? 

One way, or the other, you're going to live with the consequences of growing numbers of impoverished children. Why not live the way that helps, and reduces ongoing expenses to everyone, the most?

P.S  Being impoverished isn't avoiding responsibilities.

by william blake on November 03, 2014
william blake

@ nick,

firing squad at the top of the cliff for you?

by Nick Gibbs on November 03, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@ Eliza

No children aren't hobbies but they are a choice. 

by Lee Churchman on November 03, 2014
Lee Churchman

Why should the taxpayer have to support people who won't take responsibility for their own choices? 

That would include pretty much everybody in one way or another, including yourself. It's just how modern economies work. Everyone in NZ has what amounts to a compulsory insurance policy that is paid into on a can-pay basis. You were covered by it when you were a baby, and the only expectation is that you pay in when you grow up, if you can and if you choose to stay in NZ. Like any other insurance policy, even if you don't collect on it, it guarantees security and peace of mind (to others as well as yourself) - the reason the government does it is that it is the only economic actor that can do this at a reasonable cost, and if you don't like it, you can leave.

We could if we wanted treat children as a "choice", but, like many conservative policies, it would end up being expensive and inflicting misery on people for no overall gain. The answer to why societies like ours don't treat children as a "choice" is that they can't really afford to.

My guess based on your posts is that you don't understand how welfare state capitalism works. Try to prove me wrong. I could use a laugh.

by Andrew Geddis on November 04, 2014
Andrew Geddis

No children aren't hobbies but they are a choice.

What - you never used the line "I didn't ask to be born!" in arguments with your parents? Or maybe we're getting all Hindu about things, and arguing that childrens' life states reflect karma from their previous lives?

by Henry Barnard on November 04, 2014
Henry Barnard

"Yet I have seen more instances than just this one of parents not working in their children's best interests"

I will see your anecdotes, and raise it with the recent one based on the experience I know of about family of four children with a solo mother (husband walked out on her and family) who, with help, was turning her life around and who, on advice, asked the landlord to fix the blocked drain and room leaking, was evicted and now the family is living with friends because there is no accommodation available.  Gosh, those children made poor choices.

by Megan Pledger on November 04, 2014
Megan Pledger

If people waited until they could 100% guarantee that their childrem could grow up poverty-free than the number of children would be a hell of a lot less.  Every parent has to take on the risk that they won't die, that their partner won't die, disappear, go to jail, walk away, lose their job, their wealth destroyed by fire, earthquake or flood.

People can make choices which are optimal in the circumstances at the time but aren't if circumstances suudenly change or the are unable to evaluate the circumstances properly.  For the most part people choosing to have their first child have very little idea of the cost incurred in time and money.

by Nick Gibbs on November 04, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@ William,

firing squad at the top of the cliff for you?

Not sure what you mean? Is that what I what or what you think I deserve?


by Nick Gibbs on November 04, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@ Andrew,

No I'm not into karma. I'm really arguing against a high tax economy that panders to those parents who take little or no care of their children. Parental irresponsibility has a large part to play in child poverty is my contention.

by Andrew Geddis on November 04, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Nick,

Parental irresponsibility has a large part to play in child poverty is my contention.

Even if that is true, how is that the child's choice? And should we permit the sins of the parents to be vested on their offspring, when there is something we can do about that?

Put it this way - let's assume that beating the children of burglars is proven to be an effective way of lowering burglary rates (it's a thought experiment, so run with it). Would the effectiveness of this incentive then justify its use (i.e. make it OK to hurt kids for their parent's choices)? If not, why is it then OK to apply the same reasoning in the case of child poverty - to say that we're going to let some kids grow up in material deprivation in order to try to incentivise other people not to become parents?

by Lee Churchman on November 04, 2014
Lee Churchman

I'm really arguing against a high tax economy that panders to those parents who take little or no care of their children

That's an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of the cheapest and most efficient way to fight child poverty. Your problem is that you are conducting a cost benefit analysis without looking at all the costs.

Still waiting for you to explain how welfare state capitalism works. Should be fun.

by william blake on November 04, 2014
william blake

@ William,

firing squad at the top of the cliff for you?

Not sure what you mean? Is that what I what or what you think I deserve?

 Yes and yes and you get to choose.
by Nick Gibbs on November 04, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@ Andrew,

Regarding letting children grow up in material deprivation, from my admittedly limited view point, the children growing up in real material deprivation are those whose parents don't care. How then will giving more money to these parents help the children?

by Nick Gibbs on November 04, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@ Lee

You go first and describe the achievements of socialism (should be brief).

@ William,

Not sure what it is about your argument that catches my attention. Maybe it's your incredible intellectual depth and dazzling articulation, or prehaps it's the way you had to so quickly resort to empty threats. You decide.

by Lee Churchman on November 04, 2014
Lee Churchman

You go first and describe the achievements of socialism (should be brief).

If you mean by "socialism", the kind of "big government" welfare state capitalism we have, then it's major achievement is usually called "modernity" – that mode of living increasingly shared by developed countries since the end of World War I.  It's characterised by widespread increases in living standards, the expansion of human knowledge, technology and education, a peak of human culture and art.

You really don't understand how our society works, do you? Nothing else would explain your rank hypocrisy in criticising systems of social insurance. 

by Nick Gibbs on November 05, 2014
Nick Gibbs

You're getting a bit tetchy there Lee. Almost as if you're not sure of your answer. Free free to have another go if you like. Although trying to justify either capitalism or socialism in a text box is a bit of a stretch. That's why I didn't try.

 

by Lee Churchman on November 05, 2014
Lee Churchman

Almost as if you're not sure of your answer.

No. I'm sure of it (my job requires me to be), and now pretty sure that you don't know. If you did, you would answer, because it's not all that complicated.

by BeShakey on November 05, 2014
BeShakey

Putting aside all the namby pamby stuff about children suffering for the faults of their parents, the evidence is growing around the costs that children growing up in poverty place on the taxpayer (poor health, poorer educational outcomes (increasing the risk of unemployment and/or employment in lower paying jobs than would otherwise be the case), increased risk of criminal offending, increased risk of incarceration etc etc etc). So we could either completely dismantle the healthcare system, free schooling etc to avoid paying those costs (which you might favour but hopefully admit is not going to happen) or invest in reducing poverty to the degree that this produces a net gain to the taxpayer.

Whether poor people and their children are fine upstanding folk or moral degenerates is then completely irrelevant.

by John Hurley on November 06, 2014
John Hurley

I had expected a summary of the research literature but there was none. All the report did was tell of people’s (often moving) experiences and what they thought should be done. It was anecdote rather than analysis.

But , but, it was peer reviewed!?

by John Hurley on November 06, 2014
John Hurley

There may, or may not, be undeserving parents, but what about their children? Are the children of undeserving parents also undeserving – suffering a kind of original sin?

The buck has to stop somewhere. Think about this (for example)

 

It was critically important for New Zealand to plan now before it was too late, Dr Bedford said.

These countries had no means to meet their growing population due to their small size, limited resource and poor infrastructure.

 Of course it isn't the children's fault their parents behaved like fruit fly.

 

 

 

by Brian Easton on November 06, 2014
Brian Easton

Nick Gibson is correct that there are bad parents. There are almost certainly fewer bad parents in households in poverty than there are those above the poverty line (because there are more above it). It would seem to me to be totally unacceptable to ignore poorly function parenting among the rich.

When you say, Nick, that ‘parental irresponsibility has a large part to play in child poverty is my contention’ do you have any evidence for this other than the odd anecdote? There is evidence that inadequate incomes are very important.

What BeShakey calls ‘all the namby pamby stuff about children suffering for the faults of their parents’ is, of course, moral outrage. I do not think societies (or, for that matter, individuals) are inferior just because they have morals. But BeShakey is quite right to remind us that there are also long term social costs.

John Hurley ask whether the Glen Report was peer reviewed. Don’t know, but given the nature of the report it is difficult to know how it could have been. I understand there is to be a second report out in a month of so, and that it will contain a scholarly survey of the literature.

I doubt that the survey will say that domestic violence only occurs among the poor (nor that it is justified among the rich). What I am interested in, though, is the extent to which it provides evidence that poverty exacerbates domestic violence.

To summarise my original contribution: an adequate income is a strong fence at the top of the cliff for ameliorating some of the worst damage caused by  poverty. But to follow up Nick, when we have got one there, we will need to address some other concerns.

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