Jess Berentson-Shaw’s 2016 Post Budget Breakfast Speech Hosted By CPAG and the PHA

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

Good morning. Thank you to the PHA and CPAG for inviting me to talk today. In a media briefing for this breakfast I read that speakers are often ‘high profile’. I certainly don’t consider myself to have a high profile. However, after appearing in the mainstream media arguing that to address the effects deprivation we should give struggling families unconditional cash benefits, I now have A profile in certain corners of the internet.

I want to start today with the words of a parent living with deprivation


I draw your attention to the last few words.. we can do things for ourselves, you know we go out there and do it for ourselves”

because these are very relevant to what we are interested in at the Foundation – the positive capability of parents.

We have been looking at how to improve the outcomes for children living with the intense strain of deprivation and while there is no a silver bullet, unconditional cash supplementation for the poorest families in NZ will seriously wound the monster of childhood misery in our midst.


Unconditional cash supplementation at specific levels for the poorest families will close the gap, in health, education, and economic attainment, by about half.

It is a highly disruptive concept; our entire social welfare system is built on the provision of conditional aid. And it is disruptive because New Zealanders’ values are heavily premised on the idea of Winners and Losers.


Somewhere between 40 and 60% of New Zealanders believe parents who don’t have enough are irresponsible people who have not worked hard enough. They are losers (and by implication parents of healthy well-off children are hard working winners). In order to move parents to a ‘winning frame of mind’ a firm hand is needed.

It is extraordinary that these Victorian values continue to inform our social policies, especially given that research from all over the world shows that moving low income parents into work through use of sanctions does not often improve economic positions overall and children suffer associated pressures.

The same research tells us that unconditional programmes are used to move parents to work (for example parents keep addtional earnings, there is no reduction of welfare payments based on their work), then we deliver net economic gain to families and improve outcomes for children. Interestingly, improvements for children are linked only to the extra money NOT the parents’ movement from being beneficiaries to workers. What we are beginning to understand is that it is both the extra money as well as a lack of conditions that makes the difference. Why does the condition-free aspect matter?


To oversimplify, it is because research shows us that the poor outcomes children in poverty experience can be explained in large part by the numerous types of stress they and their families’ experience, and conditions on State assistance tend not to deal with the deprivation or the stress and can in fact increase it.

So to mandate low paid work or low quality childcare, increased travel etc may simply do no more than move stress around or increase it. I need not remind this audience that near 40% of children in poverty have a working parent.

And stress experiences are very complex, so highly specified targeted solutions based on the simple premise that ‘lazy parents’ need to just find work, do not get to the heart of the issue for these children.

However, if we don’t assume perfect knowledge of families lives and don’t presume to direct them on how to fix their problems, rather we simply provide the means to do so (After all we live in a society in which money really matters, moreso than perhaps in the past) they exercise their capability and find effective solutions for their children.

I draw your attention to this statement by one of the neuroscientists working with a cash supplementation pilot in the US


“ it is very possible that the mechanism by which poverty operates will be different for each family, whether it [unconditional cash supplementation] allows parents to buy more books for their kids, work fewer jobs to be around their kids more, or just reduces stress for a parent about how they’re going to pay the rent”Developmental Neuroscientist Kimberly Nobel on researching the impact of poverty on children’s brain development

The research shows us what parents in poverty have been telling us for decades. They are not losers, they are potential winners.

So does this budget contain policies that place further constraints and conditions on parents or policies that recognise their capabilities to identify and remedy the sources of stress in their lives?

Slide 7

As expected, in this budget the social investment programme has received significant funding. $652.1 million over four years. This includes money for the reform of Child Youth and Family, plus a number of other targeted interventions. Instead of talking to the specific initiatives within this package I want to discuss the social investment approach more generally.

The social investment programme is a series of projects aiming to pull together as much information as possible about children and families at risk (that is those who cost the government the most by the time they are 35 in social and criminal justice actions). This information (sitting in the rather unappealingly- named Integrated Data Infrastructure, as well as some other equally forgettable named systems) will be used to see who costs the most, what policies are working and which are not. The ideas is to reduce those costs, and target accordingly. While reducing social costs is a measurable and recognised goal it is not the same as “investing” in children and building a positive asset.

Slide 8

Minister English has spoken of his desire to change the lives for ‘broken families’. Yet many of the families in dire need in NZ are not broken at all, they are just being broken by deprivation and stigmatisation. The question is will the social investment programme achieve improvements the lives of these families and children?

The effectiveness of such ‘tools’, which is essentially what the social investment programme is, depends on their design and their users.

The two big factors that will determine if the programme really can improve children’s lives are:

1) Whether the programmes currently being implemented are evidence based or ideologically driven? (bad data and poorly designed programmes fed into the reform system does not automatically lead to meaningful data on effectiveness out)

AND 2) the selected outcomes: who do they matter to? This is perhaps the key issue because if we select outcomes that have little meaning for families and are not clearly associated with improved lives for children (for example moving off benefits as opposed to improved economic attainment for children of beneficiaries) then the whole tool falls down as a mechanism to identify ‘what works for families’. It simply becomes a tool that identifies what works for governments based upon their beliefs about what works.

Minister English talks of creating a supermarket of social data. One that is easy to find, has quality food on the shelves, gives you the ability to choose what you need, and makes it easy to buy that food.

However, if I go to that supermarket to buy food (social data) and I decide I want to eat pasta with a steak but failed to note that my dinner guests were vegetarians with a gluten intolerance, then that supermarket gets ME what I want, but it does not provide my guests with a meal that they can eat.

Slide 9

These potential problems are NOT something that self-correct once the social investment tool is in operation. Real ‘investment’ in children needs to be designed in. And by real investment I refer to building assets – or human capability, hugely important if children are to develop into contributing adults – not simply minimising costs. Helping young people achieve their potential is different from stopping them being a burden on the state. That brings us to the wider issue with the social investment approach.

Slide 10

It is ultra targeting. Targeting has serious risks; the two most significant being stigmatisation of the poor as losers (the results of which we already see in the public discourse) and missing the target altogether.

What we know from the research is that the intervention that improves the most outcomes for kids (unconditional cash supplementation) does so because while insufficient resources are at the root of poor outcomes for families, the way in which poverty produces poor outcomes for children varies for every family and indivdual. Cash supplementation can account for this variability and does not risk missing children.

Each family’s needs and solutions differ and families are the best people to identify those needs.

A more cost-effective investment approach is one in which we address poverty and stress in a universal manner, recognising the winning potential of most parents across our society, and then target what needs remains.

Slide 11

Housing is critical to family well-being, a basic human need. The exponentially rising cost of housing is driving a lot of economic stress in families in NZ.

It is hard to realise your potential when living day to day in cars, overcrowded garages, and freezing damp flats. However, the right type of shelter is only available to families when they have both secure sufficient incomes AND there is sufficient affordable quality housing available. The growing need for emergency and social housing exists because neither of these issues has been addressed.

While this funding is important, it offers little in the way of a serious long-term plan for housing and income solutions that parents on low incomes need.

Slide 12

However a boost for Maori housing projects might get closer, because what that offers are elements of self-determining solutions for housing families in need. [This accords with the concept of rangatiratanga that is central to Maori’s entitlements under the treaty.]

Slide 14

Poverty and poverty-related stress is the critical factor in low attainment and behavioural issues for children at school. Funding for special needs plugs a gap, it does not give low income parents the tools they need to address their children’s educational needs.

Slide 15

Investment in youth and the Pacifika and Maori workforce development is important and there is benefit for a vulnerable group of young people. But let’s not forget why these youth need additional support at aged 18- because we did not invest in them and their parents in their early years.

While investment in paid work matters to families and to the economy, we are clinging to out-dated policies that fail to recognise that ALL work matters. Unpaid caregiving alone contributes somewhere in the region of $10 Billion a year to the economy). The people who do this unpaid work are not losers, they are contributors.

We need policies to support low income parents to spend time with, educate and build their relationships with their children; this is an investment in children and families and is what will grow our economy in the long term.

Slide 16

Helping low income parents access more money is a step in the direction of recognising that cash not contingent upon specific behaviours is immeasurably important to families.

Slide 17

However, overall what this budget lacks are policies that invest in supporting parents as ‘Winners’: policies that help them to organise and improve the quality of their children’s lives. And so we lose, we lose the opportunity to support vulnerable children’s potential, invest in them and grow the economy as they have the opportunity to grow.

Jess Berentson-Shaw’s 2016 Post Budget Breakfast Speech Hosted By CPAG and the PHA was last modified: June 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.