Would you like a hand with a poverty target Prime Minister?

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare15 Comments

Our Prime Minster says that it is too complicated to set a target to reduce child poverty. Apparently there are too many measures, and he has received advice from officials telling him to put this one in the too hard basket. We won’t dwell on his comparison between pest predators and children.

In our view (and clearly the view of the Children’s Commissioner) the Prime Minister has been getting poor advice. It is completely possible for the Government to have target, and such a target would be more robust than some of the Government’s existing targets. Having a child poverty target is commonplace overseas and indeed it is required by the United Nations. So the question is “what are you waiting for Prime Minister?”

Is a target plausible?

As Toby Manhire has comprehensively pointed out, we put a target on virtually everything else in government. The list of better public service targets is comprehensive, quite long, and some are even complicated!

Of course a target is only useful if you can measure what matters. We’ll discuss some potential child poverty targets below, but they are far less shonky than some of the Government’s existing targets. For example Better Public Service Target Result 1 is reducing long-term welfare dependence. As we have discussed previously this measure tells us nothing about the wellbeing of the families involved and whether they are better off, just that they are off welfare.

Pretty much every other country like us has managed to set a target – for example the UK. In fact we are should have a target; the UN Sustainable Development goals (which we’ve signed up to) require us to:

“ By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions” [1].

It appears that the Government is hoping to avoid having to report on this Sustainable Development Goal by not having a national definition on poverty. It is the kind of fast and loose approach to international goals that we have seen on climate change, meeting our obligations with weasel words rather than real action. It is a bit like saying the dog ate my homework when you just can’t be bothered.

Some target ideas for the Government (not advice but could be used as such)

The Prime minster’s main point appears to be that there are too many measures of child poverty. As we have covered extensively before there are indeed multiple measures of child and family poverty and all of them tell us that the wellbeing of our worst off kids took a hammering during the 80s and 90s and has stabilised but not recovered since. Not this year, not last year.

Other countries have managed to address the multiple measures issue by having more than one target. Not rocket science really.

Here are some measures we already report on that we could target:

[1] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg1


Alternatively the Government could just choose one combined measure. For example ‘poverty severity’ is a measure that is reported in the Government’s own comprehensive reports on household incomes. It combines income poverty with severe material deprivation. There are about 8% of our 1,006,000 children in who are in this group of ‘severely poor’- somewhere around 85,000 kids. The Government could select this measure as a target for example and as the Children’s Commissioner suggests reduce it by 5 or 10% next year- about 8,500 kids.

Alternatively, Judge Andrew Becroft (the Children’s Commissioner) suggests a ‘material hardship’ measure. The internationally comparable EU-13 measure, which we have spoken about previously (and is the middle measure on the graph above), shows about 145,000 kids are living in material hardship, we could aim to cut that by 14,000. So these things are not hard to choose. They aren’t rocket science, just statistical science.

Why is the Government resistant to a target?

Instead of focussing on the causes of poor outcomes for children, the Government instead continues to ‘target’ the symptoms by focussing on what Bill English calls “Broken Families’. This may be convenient (though to be honest ultra targeting is pretty tricky to do) but it is not dealing with the root cause of the issue. Just like targeting measles symptoms will not work to prevent outbreaks in the same way vaccination can.

The thing that is actually wrong with most of these families is too little money, too few opportunities and too much stress. All the high quality evidence points to unconditional money being the solution for low-income low opportunity parents and their children. Setting targets that improves incomes and material position would require more transfers of money and fewer conditions on hardworking stressed parents.

The Government claims to care about the evidence and will do whatever it takes to improve outcomes for children, but in this case they appear to have little appetite for the evidence.


Would you like a hand with a poverty target Prime Minister? was last modified: October 4th, 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.

15 Comments on “Would you like a hand with a poverty target Prime Minister?”

  1. Hey Jess, interesting stuff. I’m writing on the same thing for The Initiative’s newsletter on Friday. Spoiler alert: I have a slightly different take.
    Quick question: do you have a link to your report on Unconditional Cash Transfers? I can’t seem to find it on this website. Am trying to get my head around the literature but the link to your blog only describes two studies (and an article from The Economist).

  2. It is definitely something we should be measuring.

    Obviously care needs to be taken with the actual measure because as the cliche goes you get
    what you measure and a poorly designed measure can lead to unintended outcomes as the agencies chase the performance against the measure rather than the outcome.

    Interestingly the Ministry of Social Development and some of the other social agencies have been using Results Based Accountability (developed by Mark Friedman and others) which strikes me as being a straightforward, pragmatic way of developing and managing robust measures.

  3. There is only one response to your article: forget about bad advice or difficulties setting targets. Key used this excuse to divert attention from the fact that either he doesn’t have a clue about what to do, or he couldn’t give a stuff about families living in poverty.

  4. If we wipe out poverty where would most of our state servants work. Less prisoners, less children in Cyfs, less Police needed, less beneficiaries, less judicial spending. We spend so much on the poor now just at the wrong end. Its a disgrace to have children in this country living in poverty. We have so much un yet successive governments cant solve poverty. It should be the top priority of every politician. It is completely unnecessary and the economic and social costs of the status quo is baffling.The whole economy will boom if we take people from poverty and give them the means to take care of themselves and their families.

  5. Very good article.
    I have my doubts that J Key and his off siders are even capable of solving this large problem we face.
    He would far sooner leave it all to the officials, the Public Service and so far they have fallen short.

    He is absolutely useless with any issues that require brain power.

    Key is comfortable hob nobbing with the big names around the world, but bloody hopeless at solving problems at home.

    It is not in his nature to want to solve poverty, he only likes to be around where the money is, and so far that is where his votes are, safe for the time being.
    But surely, voters must be starting to turn away from this kind of administration.
    It is not good enough.

  6. Why solve the problem? Keeping people poor and desperate, so they will work for low wages in poor conditions, has been the goal of Nationals’ policies.
    Targets will make this too obvious.

  7. Please vote against national and their allies, they are a sickening, gutless affront to decent society. John Key especially grew up in challenging circumstances and now claims concern but makes no effort. Calling him a weasel is a galling insult to weasels.

  8. It seems to me that the evidence shows that child poverty creates social costs long term. For NZ about $8-$12 Billion per year. We spend lots on damage control (Health, Prisons, Welfare, etc) and too little smart policy on prevention. Jobs & training, and excessive housing costs from under supply of houses and oversupply of foreign capital & people, are two obvious areas for action. But the political truth is that neither the politicians nor the senior public servants want to reduce poverty. I used to think all MPS should be paid the median income, since they represent average New Zealanders. But perhaps a simple target would be to pay all the members of the Government party in power the first quartile family income as their total remuneration. That would be a big incentive to fix up the income issues for the lowest 25% of families.

  9. While I know it sounds heartless I am not certain about using some of the facts that are used such as the 60% line. Surely if you move some above that line others must fall below it. On the deprivation chart it also seems difficult to isolate factors such as the three main reasons for relative poverty: Failure to complete high school to the point where further training can be obtained, living alone and finally an addiction. Any government can do much to help the first of these but the second two are very difficult to measure and therefore separating them for statistical reasons a bit nebulous

    1. The 60% of average income line works because prices in a country generally reflect the amount everyone has to spend. They are tied to average incomes.
      When someone’s income is a smaller proportion of the average then they are poorer. Research shows this deprivation level is around 60% of average income in New Zealand. This percentage will get higher as inequality rises.

      1. So if you increase the incomes of those under the 60 so that they are over the 60 do you not still have as many under the 60 although a different group, I.e. from the previous over 60%

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