We Can Improve Children’s Lives if We Choose: We Need to Understand these 6 Things

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare1 Comment

The latest child poverty monitor has been released, but nothing has changed. Let me predict: commentators & politicians will argue over poverty measurements, the ‘real’ numbers, parents will be blamed, social investment mentioned and our focus will slide oh so gently away from an unpalatable and difficult reality.

Meanwhile the moral debt builds, the tower of wasted potential trembles, the hole of human misery grows deeper, darker and wider. And children and families are left in the shadows. They are left in the respiratory wards of our hospitals, the barren rooms of our early childhood centers and the hopeless cells of our prisons. Yet if we choose to we could mend this tear in the fabric of New Zealand. We could value all lives equally and make things right for these families and their children. We just need to understand 6 things:

  1. Child poverty exists using multiple measurements and it matters because it leads to poor outcomes for children & families that cost the country around $10billion a year. This is criminal waste of amazing potential.


* AHC: After housing costs; BHC: Before housing costs. Source: Perry, 2016. Household Incomes in New Zealand


Figure 1. Rates ‘Poor’ Children in New Zealand

  1. We need to focus not on the metrics but on what works to change the outcomes and what works is money. Money works first & foremost, to lift stress in families under enormous pressure and improve outcomes. But it needs to come early.


  1. Intervention needs to come very early – pre birth preferably- and certainly in the first five years of life because that is when stress and resource scarcity in a family seriously impacts on a child’s physical, mental and behavioral development. The toxic impact of stress can last a lifetime.


  1. Older children, young adults and even grown adults don’t respond as we would like to interventions and appear sometimes to make poor decisions in the face of positive inputs even. This is because reversing the toxic stress effects from infancy is hugely difficult. Brain connections have been made, behaviours have been set and while the brain is plastic and malleable at all ages it is an expensive, intensive uphill battle to change things for adult who was not invested in as a baby.


  1. We can change outcomes, there are policies that work, but families, yes families, parents, grandparents, whanau, not just children, need the right support to provide a nursery of opportunity for their children.


  1. We provide unconditional money for a vulnerable group of people at one end of the life spectrum (the elderly) because we believe it to be the right thing to do and it works. We can choose to do the same when the seeds are vulnerable and just emerging, as well as when the plants are in maturity. If we choose to give this support things will change. It is in our power to give all children in NZ the opportunity to thrive.


We Can Improve Children’s Lives if We Choose: We Need to Understand these 6 Things was last modified: December 13th, 2016 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.

One Comment on “We Can Improve Children’s Lives if We Choose: We Need to Understand these 6 Things”

  1. Great article and something more people need to disqus.
    A couple of things jumped to mind while reading this.
    Rational choice theory does not hold up after some interrogation: for example people making poor choices in the face of what seems to be positive options; my first issue here is that it makes it sound as if peoples life outcomes are down to decisions they have made, but when you look at the structural limitations facing many people in New Zealand and the world you will find that where you are born will actually determine you life outcomes. I am sure you have read about intergenerational poverty. Another example is the amount of people who are actually poor in the world, we cannot say that all these people have made poor choices, rather it is that poverty is a structural component to capitalism. It is hard to argue against this as history shows us that capitalism grows poverty because the basic premise of capitalism is to profit and reduce cost (neo-liberalism).

    At the risk of sounding like an idealist, I think the answer is to either expand the welfare state to astronomical proportions or reduce structural limitations on peoples lives by not allowing life to become unsustainable. For example we raise wages, health and social captital by investing massively into education. Education correlates better health outcomes ( reducing the cost of health welfare) it correlates with increased wages ( reducing structural compaction, does not remove completely), it correlates with social capital ( raising community awareness and togetherness at the street level) this also increases democratic participation. If we were as a nation to fund schools through the roof, bringing in more teachers from all ethnicities to create a protege ,tutelage type of system where children at school resonate with a teacher and the teacher with the child.

    Anyway this could go on, cheers and great article.

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