When Good Intentions Are Not Enough: Smart Investment in Families Needs to Look To a Thriving Future for All.

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

As part of the pre budget announcements the Government has allocated $321million to a “social investment package” for vulnerable families and children. There are 14 initiatives in the package, and $69 million over four years, will be for

“a national rollout of the Family Start Programme, an expansion of behavioural services for young children and a new programme to support pre-school children with oral language needs and literacy difficulties,”

Sounds good. No one, no one in this country could stand up and legitimately argue that these are not laudable issues needing meaningful attention.

The Minister in charge of social Investment Amy Adams had this to say:

“We also want to ensure our investment in the social sector is used in the most effective ways. ….. Applying rigorous and evidence-based investment practices to social services helps ensure we are doing that”.

Also sounds very good.

But I want to talk about gardens for a bit (bit of a diversion I know).

Imagine you have decided to grow a vegetable garden; you want to be able to eat the produce from that garden and maybe sell the excess. You get a book on gardening from your Dad and it tells you there are two main approaches to vegetable gardening. In the first, you could choose to grow a single crop, use fertilizer and pesticides, and maximize the growth of that single crop each season. This approach will probably strip nutrients from the soil in the long term (you will have to keep using fertilizer). This approach has a reasonable return for not a lot of effort. Alternatively you can grow a mixed crop, rotate the beds, use fewer pesticides and only use some chemical fertilizer. It has a slighter better medium term return and has some better outcomes in terms of soil health. It takes a bit more effort than the first option. You care about the environment and don’t mind doing “what it takes” to make the garden grow so you decide to go with the second option. It is the right thing to do.

The gardening goes well, you get reasonable crops, the rhubarb never does very well, but there is not a lot you can do about that, as you follow what the book advises, clearly rhubarb is just not a good crop for your garden. Strangely though you notice your neighbour has a garden that absolutely thrives; it is lush and prolific and her rhubarb is huge. When you ask how she does it she says she rotates her crops, uses different composts for different plants, rests her beds, companion plants, tests for good bacteria in the soil and also she keep ducks for the snails. “Oh” you say, this was not something my reading led me to. She asks what you read and you tell her you consulted the Palmers Gardening Guide published in 1977. Anything else she asks? “No” you say, “I like the Palmers guide, it was my Dad’s and he grew big vegetables”.

So you get the idea. If we keep our range of enquiry narrow (and we know unintentional bias, historical behaviour, our complex belief sets and culture all can play a big role here), while our motives may be good ones and our intention to focus on what works genuine, we can simply miss the big picture. The big picture here being how to ensure our children don’t just do ok but really thrive.

No one has a monopoly on caring about families and children, but good intentions are not enough.

While the social investment approach, with its focus on ‘evidence’ may come from a genuine desire to do the right thing in the right way, it misses a whole lot of vital information that is going to limit its success for real families and children who are suffering. While the approach may look like a sensible and somewhat novel idea, it draws on limited information and will have limited effect (so still the rhubarb won’t grow).

Intervening in families just doesn’t work like we want it to and believe it should

This year we completed two years of research into what does work to grow thriving families and children. One of the many approaches we explored thoroughly was intervening in troubled families. Exactly the type of programme the Prime Minster is talking about. What we concluded after examining the highest quality evidence (systematic reviews that account for bias in individual studies and draw together the whole body of evidence) was this:

“Part of the challenge of determining whether home visiting and parenting programmes work for children is the cluster of problems that continue to arise when it comes to the quality of the research. There is wide variation between the different programmes, multiple outcomes for children and adults have been chosen by different programmes (some focus upon preventing injury, others promote parenting or seek to enhance family health, for example) many different target groups (some high-risk parents, some single parents), and different timeframes (some programmes are short-term and others are longer- term). This wide variability makes it difficult to assess all the studies as a complete body of evidence. One common flaw of these particular programmes is that they tended to stray from the original design when implemented: That is, those putting them into practice didn’t stick to the programme protocols and original theory-led design. Individual programmes, with very specific goals determined by theory, rigorously evaluated and adjusted alongside comparison groups for the sake of monitoring their effectiveness show promise, especially if they focus upon identifying and catering to the needs of high-risk groups of parents. But there is currently no evidence to indicate that such programmes would achieve the outcomes for children in poverty that cash assistance would.”

You can read more about the research here.

In addition, a very similar programme that the UK government invested a lot of money in called “Troubled Families” (sound familiar) was recently reported to make no difference to families after four years of use, as I wrote about here.

What does ensure families and children thrive?

Below is a figure showing how all the different interventions to ensure children thrive stack up. One stands out very clearly from the rest: sufficient cash, without strings attached- also called a basic income for families- is hugely powerful.

Raising children is hard work, we all want the best for our children, but with rising costs of living, soaring accommodation costs and food prices, longer work hours, a rise in insecure work and low pay, families are under enormous pressure in New Zealand. Low income families are especially suffering, but also those who used to manage ok are being pushed to breaking point by unemployment, rent increases, and transport costs and will need to rely on short term pay day loans just to get hold of basics. Yes, these families may need some support to help them be good parents, but what they need far more than that is enough, enough money to not just get by but to get out and to help their children thrive.

Families who are struggling don’t need more rules, more well intentioned people telling them how to be parents and punishing them for not meeting increasingly totalitarian conditions to access support (like forcing them to put their babies in low quality childcare). They need policy that is based on a good understanding of what happens when you find yourself poor in New Zealand and the trap that poverty and debt becomes. They also need a belief in their potential to be the garden in which their children will thrive. They need what really works, we all do.


When Good Intentions Are Not Enough: Smart Investment in Families Needs to Look To a Thriving Future for All. was last modified: March 1st, 2022 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.