Child Poverty: Stop blaming parents, read and understand the evidence

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

The Island of Neverland was inhabited by boys, who, after bouncing from their perambulators whilst on a turn in Kensington Gardens, were then never claimed by their feckless Victorian parents. These Lost Boys lived in feral and dangerous liberty, free from the iron rule of parents & nannies. They were unloved, unaccounted for and answerable to no one except the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Peter Pan was written at the start of the 20th century, and New Zealand is not Neverland so why are children in poverty still portrayed as the cast offs of feckless and uncaring poor parents?

Today we learn from the Child Poverty Monitor and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner that there are more children living below the ‘poverty line’ this year (305,000) than there were last year (260,000) – a third of NZ children now live in poverty. As we have discussed elsewhere you can always debate the poverty numbers; this particular poverty line measure is based the amount of children living in families that receive below 60% of the median wage – a pretty standard international definition.

This increase in children living below the poverty line is in part because incomes have gone up for the middle and the high earners in NZ in the last year – but have stayed static for the low earners. The Household Economic Survey Data displayed in the figure below shows income growth for the different income groups in NZ over time – the lowest have had no growth at all for the past two decades. Trickle up is thriving.

Real equivalised household incomes (After Housing Costs): By Income Groups, 1982 to 2014 (2014 dollars)

Real equivalised household incomes (After Housing Costs): By Income Groups, 1982 to 2014 (2014 dollars)

Regardless of whether this is the right measure of child poverty, the salient point is that we are doing no better this issue than we were last year or the year before. Why are we doing no better?

We Are Focussing on the Wrong Type of Poverty

For years child poverty has been the focus of our reports and discussion. The term ‘child’ is used because we (rightly) want to focus people on the vulnerable, the powerless and the innocent. We want people to see that the future of our nation is at risk, and to recognise the inherent right that all children have to fully participate in everything Aotearoa can offer a child. But for that, they have the opportunity.

However, when we focus only on ‘child poverty’ we create a climate where in the public’s mind the children are separate from their families. Then the public sees parents in poverty as guilty: guilty of fecklessness, ignorance and abandonment of their parental responsibilities. In believing this myth that poor parents are also bad parents we have ended up misguidedly directing our best rescue efforts.

The Trouble with Believing Poor Parents are BAD Parents

The trouble with believing the bad, undeserving parent myth is that we want to help the children but we don’t want to help their parents. So we don’t bother. We feed children in schools but Weetbix is not going to fix their problems. We talk about providing minimum standards for children in housing, yet families in poverty are not able to find, access or afford decent accommodation for their children. The data is telling us this loud and clear – we don’t want to acknowledge it though, far easier (and lazier actually) to play the blame game. We choose to treat the symptoms (children doing badly) and but never the cause (family poverty) because we simply do not trust parents in poverty to do the best for their children.

It’s About Lack of Resources, Stupid.

What is really at the heart of poor outcomes for children in poverty is a lack of resources in a family and an environment filled with stress.

The science helps us understand how poverty leads to poor outcomes for children, and in contrast to the urban myth, it is not because their parents are bad people. Firstly, poverty causes massive stress in families, especially if it is chronic long term poverty. All of us know the adage that money isn’t everything but no money is. Indisputably though, the Family Stress explanation is evidenced by research showing parents who move out of poverty rapidly displayed improved parenting behaviours, better interactions with their children, are less involved in crime, and their children do a lot better at school, are less anxious, less depressed and also are less involved in crime.

Stress from poverty also has a biochemical and neurological impact on the developing systems of children (e.g. brains structures, the immune system, metabolism) – an impact that lasts a lifetime. This Toxic Stress effect occurs if children personally experience the stress or if they experience a lack of adult stimulation & attachment in key development phases due to stressed parents. Science has shown that there is a permanent physical impact of poverty-related stress.

Families in poverty have less to spend on both the basics and the enriching experiences children need to thrive, and there is some evidence (though it not as strong as the evidence regarding poverty-induced stress) that an inability to purchase goods and experiences also leads to poor outcomes for children. Material deprivation in other words, matters.

In reality family stress, toxic stress and limited resources conspire to determine children’s well-being. For example a family who has less money to buy books for children, may also have fewer psychological resources due to economic stress to read to and engage their child in learning. This lack of time and attention in crucial development periods in turn impacts on how a child’s brain structures and thinking develop – this becomes a generational issue as skill and ability begets further skills and ability.

The science tells us that children in poverty do poorly not because they have feckless irresponsible parents, but because they live in families under intense pressure who want to do better but cannot.

How to Fix the Problem? 

In 2016, the Morgan Foundation will release the findings of our own investigation into poverty in Aotearoa, New Zealand. While we initially started looking into child poverty, what we soon realized was that we needed to change our focus and look instead at families in poverty. Because the solution to the experiences of poor children in our country lay in understanding what are the challenges faced by families who don’t have enough money and how to best address those challenges.


Child Poverty: Stop blaming parents, read and understand the evidence was last modified: December 15th, 2015 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.