The Case for A Basic Income for Families with Children in New Zealand

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

It is amazing what a difference a few miles (and a totally different political paradigm) can make to the vulnerable in society. While in the US life looks like becoming a lot harder for those on low incomes with the possible repeal of Medicare by the new Trump Administration, in Ontario, Canada they are working hard on making life for those without enough a lot better.

In 2017 Ontario is going to start giving free money to the poor via a Basic Income (sometimes called unconditional cash assistance). They are going to observe what happens when those on low or no incomes are given C$1320 per month with no strings attached. Have those Canadians gone mad and thrown all caution to the wind? Don’t they know the poor are poor because they are just no good with money?

Well it turns out the Canadians like facts and they like research and evidence too – and so they use it to inform their social policy. Social policy that they use to try and make Canada a fair and thriving place for all its citizens.

The realities about those living without enough

The realities for those living without enough are thus: current welfare polices have not worked to improve outcomes for those who don’t have enough (not here and not in the US or Canada). I focus on outcomes because, while we can measure incomes and wealth or being off a benefit and use this as an indicator of policy success, it does not tell us if anything has actually improved in terms of quality of life. Because being poor leads to a pretty poor quality of life. Poor health, low educational attainment, reduced earning power, exclusion from feeling connected with the rest of society, poor mental health etc are all experienced at a significantly higher rates by those with fewer resources, including those in New Zealand. If polices don’t improve quality of life for those suffering the most from current economic imbalances, then those policies are a moral and fiscal failure.

Another reality is that the poor are not poor because they make poor decisions. While science shows us that grinding poverty does not lend your brain to optimal development and performance, this is really an effect of poverty related stress not the cause. The poor remain poor, and fail to thrive, because social policies have not worked to right things.

Unconditional money works – just look at superannuation

While we can argue for a long time about what leads to a life with insufficient resources, finding out what works to lift people out of it is a more important and immediate focus for policy. And this is what the Canadians are doing. A basic income has promise in the evidence and in practice so they are going to implement it as part of a series of policy experiments (hopefully high quality ones) and note what works best and what happens to those who receive it in different forms.

We have our own evidence of a basic income working in practice in New Zealand. Just look at universal superannuation: a government policy that has successfully reduced New Zealand’s rates of poverty in the over 65s to equal rates to those in Scandinavian countries. We saw a vulnerable group and a need and we implemented a successful policy based on the idea of providing a basic income.


We should be proud of that. While some argue that superannuation is a ‘return for tax paid’ the reality is that the tax paid by older people is long spent by the time they get to 65 on the basics like roads and schools and their healthcare. We should not minimise superannuation by calling it a return on payments made. Rather super is something we do as a ‘Good Society’; we use taxpayer dollars to support a segment of our population during what can be a vulnerable period of their lives.

There are of course questions about exactly how we continue to implement this policy given its ballooning costs (see the figure below as Super rises to near $15billion per year in 2019). But good evidence-based policy undergoes tweaks and adjustments based on societal values, need and costs, so I am confident that in New Zealand, a country that values fairness and transparency so highly, we will get there with Super too.


We can and should implement a Basic Income in New Zealand for families with children

So we know how to fix things with a basic income for older people, but in failing to balance this policy for older people with a similar policy for our other vulnerable group (children) we now have a huge gap between the wellbeing of children and older New Zealanders. Such a gap seems out of kilter in a country that prides itself on taking care of each other. Compare the graph below with that on material derivation in people over 65 we showed earlier and you can see than New Zealand social policy has a major imbalance that needs correction.


A policy correction is necessary if we want to thrive as a country. Investment in the start of life has massive benefits for our society and the individuals in it, benefits that far outweigh the costs over the long term. In doing the good thing we are also doing the economically sound thing.

Will a basic income work for families with children? The evidence says yes. In ‘Money Works’, the book we are releasing next year, we cover in depth the scientific studies and natural experiments showing that a Basic Income provided free from conditions to low income low opportunity families with children works to improve outcomes and ensure they have the opportunity to thrive. It leads to significant improvements in their quality of life: children do better at school, engage in less crime, have fewer mental health episodes and better relationships with their parents. While parents themselves do better as well. It is not a silver bullet, but it has been modelled to halve the gap in multiple outcomes between children on low incomes and other children. This is much more than any other focussed policy intervention (like parenting programmes or food in schools) can achieve. That is not to say we should not do some of those other things that work, but it makes sense to do the thing that works best first.

Why does a basic income work? It is all about relieving stress

The lives of low-income low opportunity families and individuals are stressful, but that stress is unique to each family. However, when we give families more resources and choices via an unconditional cash payment, in the main, they behave like any other family in New Zealand – they do the best they can for their children to make their lives work and it pays off in the long-term.

When we talk about what works for low-income low opportunity families releasing stress is a major part of the puzzle. We can of course provide additional opportunities for low-income families, via work, for example, but the science tells us that if stress is not released or is simply moved to another aspect of their lives, outcomes don’t improve. That is a policy failure. We cannot design people into a policy; we have to design policy for how people actually are.

Unconditional cash assistance is the ultimate multidisciplinary policy tool. We need not know what the particular problems are in a family’s life, or direct them how to behave to achieve improved outcomes. We just need to know that it works.

Should it only be low-income families who get a Basic Income?

Interestingly, data from a Statistics New Zealand study that followed families for 8 years has shown us that more than half of all New Zealand families experience at least one year of very low incomes after having a child. Having a child is what we call an economic stress point in many people’s lives – this is now the reality of modern societies. As such this reality places many children at risk of the poorer outcomes associated with growing up with insufficient resources. Again we come back to what works to mitigate these risks? A reductionist response is to argue that only the wealthy should have children. Along with being quite offensive and having extremely sinister overtones, further delineating society into the haves and have nots simply creates more of the current economic and social imbalance. Such imbalance has not worked out very well for many countries around the world recently in terms of fostering social cohesion, applying principles of fairness or achieving wellbeing for all. Rather correcting the imbalance by using social policies that actually work should be our focus. Evidence tells us that investment in all children in the first five years of life has significant benefits for those children and families, but also the economy. We cover this in further detail in the book too, but certainly there is an excellent case to be made for a basic income for all young families in New Zealand.

A progressive country like ours can implement brave progressive policies that work

Like Canada, we can experiment with our social policy in an ethical and evidenced based way. We need not be lead by assumptions, fears and mean spiritedness. Rather we can look at where we have been progressive, supportive and empathetic to New Zealanders and do more of it to help more people. We need not wait for big earthquakes and natural disasters to show the best and most innovative of ourselves.

The Case for A Basic Income for Families with Children in New Zealand was last modified: November 18th, 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.