Judith Collins happily chucked her “Non-PC” views into the supercharged arena that is the current debate on low-income low opportunity families in New Zealand. What she had to say contained elements of truth. And because the story that is often told about low income families is far too simplistic, when someone steps up with a smattering of some complex truths scattered amongst the mythology it gets traction. So what did she say that was true, and what was myth?
The true bits
Judith Collins tells us that there is money available to everyone who needs it. She is (mostly) right. There is (some) money available for low-income families in New Zealand. Problem is there is not enough of it. Prior to the late 80s and early 90s in New Zealand we had a pretty solid welfare state in the sense that welfare provided more than the bare minimum of support for families who needed it. However in 1991, following mass unemployment after rapid deregulation of the New Zealand Economy, benefit rates were slashed drastically to below poverty lines and they have barely moved since. By most measures the number of children living in poverty rose at that time, and have stayed there since.
So there is money available, just not enough. To add insult to injury, there has been an insidious growth in the conditions and sanctions that come with benefits. These conditions are not based on any evidence that they improve outcomes for families or children, and instead can actually make families more stressed and less well off than ever. And stress as it turns out is the real problem in low-income, low opportunity families.
So Judith Collins is also right that with low incomes and few opportunities there comes as she puts it “a poverty of ideas”. The science tells us that the toxic impact of stress brought about by insufficient resources eats away at family relationships, even at babies and children’s physical development. The grinding stress of having to cover bills, keeping children warm & healthy, worry about whether casual work will become no work is certainly no good for optimal thinking or ideal family functioning.
But then Judith Collins gets it all so very very wrong.
We have previously covered the total lack of evidence for the misinformation that Judith Collins gave voice to. Most low-income parents are concerned deeply about their children’s welfare and want to do their best for them. We see this in research across numerous societies. In the UK for example when cash benefits increased for those on the lowest incomes as part of the child poverty package of the Blair Government, the cash was spent on the children. Clearly they are errors of fact that still have some palatability amongst those who like what Judith Collins has to say. However, she is also wrong in thinking that this is how most New Zealanders see the issue.
Actually the evidence tells us that most New Zealanders place great value on qualities including social justice, helpfulness, equality and respect for others. So they understand that most (not all) but most parents work hard for their children, love them, and want the best for them. They understand that those parents on low incomes with few opportunities find it very hard to deliver good outcomes for their children if the rope they get thrown is just that little too short and has bits of glass embedded in it.
How much is Minister Collins right and how much is she wrong?
Where is her evidence that the poor are bad parents? From what we can see there is none.
What we do know is that there are around 5000 children who have been removed from the legal care of their parents. We do know that not all these children are poor- abuse happens across society.
We also know that there is no evidence the state does a better job of looking after these kids than their parents did. If fact we know these are the kids who do worst in New Zealand.
So people in glass houses much?
If we do assume that the majority of these 5000 children are from low-income families (given the stress pathway there is a link between insufficient resources and parent/child relationships) lets put that in context. There are a number of robust measures of child poverty (despite silly claims to the contrary), but if we take the most severe groups (children who are both income poor and in severe material deprivation), there are about 90,000 of them. So maybe (and that is a pretty huge ‘taking a guestimate finger in the air’ type maybe) around 6% of children in low-income families have parents or caregivers who don’t know how to keep them safe.
So while the Minister might be a bit right, we can’t see any evidence that she is more than 6% right, and even then this is pretty weak data. What Minister Collins has done is tar the other 94% of families with the same brush, when in fact most of them do an incredible job in challenging circumstances.
So what to make of the Minister’s approach?
From an evidence-based perspective it is extremely lightweight. This raises the question as to why the Minister has reached for the megaphone to broadcast a false message:
(a) She likes to take a lightweight approach and prefers anecdotal-based to empirical evidence
(b) she has a political agenda – to reinforce the prejudice that a particular cohort of right wing supporters have – playing to her constituency.
(c) she’s acknowledging that her government doesn’t like the real solutions to poverty and so is deciding to play the “blame” card to disguise that inadequacy
(d) she actually doesn’t care that the bulk of poor people are that way through no fault of their own and is quite happy to call them names, to label them as bad unloving parents in full knowledge of the evidence that shows that’s not correct
Only Judith Collins knows which is correct but the fact remains she is mostly wrong, about 94% wrong by our calculations. Her reasons are hers to acknowledge.
What actually works?
We are currently finalizing a book on what works best to improve child outcomes for those from low-income low opportunity families. Targeted programmes (like intervening in families and implementing parenting or education programmes) certainly have some evidence of effect, they are popular amongst the voting public and can be very useful for achieving improvements in very specific outcomes for children. However, one of the most effective ways to improve child outcomes (based on the intervention literature) is unconditional cash transfers for families. That means giving them more money without conditions attached to it.
We can understand the effectiveness of this approach a few ways. The main being that, as we mentioned earlier, a significant pathway through which children from low-income families suffer poor outcomes is stress. Both their exposure to stress in the family, and hence poor family dynamics and relationships, and their own stress responses, which limit brain and cognitive development, have long term impacts on their development. Unconditional cash gives parents the opportunity to reduce the stress resulting from insufficient resources in a way that works best for them and their families. No family experiences stress the same way or have the same exact constraints on their resources. That the government would know what yours or my main sources of stress are and how to counter them effectively seems a little ludicrous really.
Of course this is not the whole solution – unconditional cash transfers are modelled to halve the difference in outcomes between low-income children and their better off peers. So targeted interventions will still have a role to play. There will still be some “dysfunctional parents” who will treat their children poorly even if they have a higher income.
However, one of the main issues we find in New Zealand with targeted programmes is while popular they are just not as effective as we think they are going to be. One of the big issues is that they work in a research scenario but when they get taken up by Governments they get changed so much that they are not longer delivering the components that are really effective. We also have a problem with appropriate high quality evaluation. Another reason cash transfers as a first step has a lot of benefits.
All this is covered in detail in the book. But you can read a once over lightly on the issue starting with this blog.
Finally, lets consider again what New Zealanders value. They value respect for others and for whatever reasons Judith Collins is showing very little of this for hard working parents. She is not crushing the ‘PC’ brigade, she is just wrong, wrong on what the evidence says and wrong about what New Zealanders value.
By reminding ourselves of the humans, the parents, the people involved and the respect and value they all deserve, we get much closer to discussing the real solutions for low-income low opportunity families based on the science. So why does Minister Collins and others wish to avoid that particular discussion?