Where is the vision for thriving lives for all Kiwis?

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

Today the Salvation Army released its annual state of the nation report. It highlights particularly the lack of evidence that crime is on the rise, and questions the focus of spending on policing and prisons. Instead it asks why is money not being spent on the things that really work to give all New Zealanders the chance to thrive?

If you have been the victim of a crime, it never feels like enough is being done to prevent it. It is shocking, distressing and it tilts your view of the world on its head. It feels like things will never be safe. These a valid and understandable feelings. However, when those in power play on these fears, this sense of insecurity and the desire to punish, it does not achieve a better society. It does not lead to less crime, it does not lead to a safer community, it does not improve the lives of victims and it does not improve the lives of those who perpetrate the crime.

As the Salvation Army researcher Alan Johnson says where is the vision? And we would add where is the focus on ‘what works’? Lets look at what works to reduce crime.

First, consider the circumstances in which crime seems a viable option

Children from low-income communities are both more likely to perpetrate and be the victims of crime.

While merely lacking money does not lead directly to a young person committing crime, the factors associated with not having enough do. A child who grows up poor is more likely to be a low achiever in their education with more behavioural and or mental health issues, and it is these factors that influence their likelihood of running up against the criminal justice system.

There are nearly 20,000 children with a parent in prison. There is a strong relationship between having a family member in prison as a child and ending up in prison as an adult. In one study in New Zealand, around half of prisoners had family members in prison when they were growing up.

The statistics show that life for children who have a parent in prison is pretty grim; they grow up poorer, have poorer health, worse housing and struggle at school. The children of prisoners in New Zealand do not have much opportunity to escape a cycle of poverty and crime.

The gains we are making with young people are good, but those who need our help most are not getting it. While the absolute numbers of appearances for all ethnicities in youth court have gone down, both apprehensions and appearances in court show a serious overrepresentation of Māori young people. Low income is noted to be a key factor in the criminal offending of young people.

Investment in the early years does work to prevent crime

Instead of fanning the flames of people’s fears based on misinterpretation of the facts we just need to pull finger and commit to what works for an inclusive thriving society.

Boot camps, prison visits etc don’t work- instead they increase the risk of someone committing a crime, probably because it just models the behaviour we don’t want. What does work is reducing the stress on low income and families and providing families with sufficient material resources to ensure their kids have opportunities to thrive.

In our upcoming book ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Due for publication in March 2017) we cover the science that shows increasing the incomes of low-income low opportunity parents using unconditional cash assistance reduces children’s likelihood of engaging in criminal activity. By giving parents more money, and trusting them improves both the economic position of a family and reduces stress (the key pathway between poverty and poor outcomes for children).

In one large scale natural experiment in the US, children and their families lifted above the poverty line with an unconditional basic income experienced remarkable changes. One of the many changes was the families’ involvement in crime. Those parents who received cash had fewer interactions with the criminal justice system (fathers were 50% less likely to be arrested) and children were 22% less likely to be arrested as teenagers; parents had better mental health, and parented more positively. These improvements were greatest for the poorest families. The authors of the study concluded that ‘Overall, the results indicate that parents in households with additional incomes make better choices in their personal behavior and with regard to criminal behavior.” As this study shows it is the lack of income and stress that causes poor decision-making, not the other way round, as some people falsely believe.

And if you think low income families are not loving, committed and community minded people who know what their children need then watch ‘Under the Bridge’ the short documentary that the Herald and their star reporter Kirsty Johnston recently made. It helps young people from Papakura tell the real, complicated, positive stories of their lives.

Money confers choice & opportunity to low-income families

As we have explained before, additional unconditional cash allows low-income parents to provide fairer more equitable opportunities for their children. It does so partly because it acts as a tool to alleviate stress. No families have exactly the same problems, types of financial pressure and stress in their lives, so it makes little sense for Governments to prescribe to all low-income families how to improve their lot through assistance laden with behavioural conditions.

Cash also protects children from the negative biological impacts of poverty related stress (which include less than optimal brain and immune system development). Cash will not solve the problem entirely (it is estimated to halve it), but it is an extremely cost efficient and wide ranging compared to the targeted solutions that are currently favoured.

Invest in positive vision for the future

If Government’s really want to invest in the future, prevent children from engaging in crime, relieve the stress in families and reduce parents interaction with the criminal justice system then spending $1billion a year (what extra prison beds will cost us) on low income families with children under 5 is an excellent place to start.

Where is the vision for thriving lives for all Kiwis? was last modified: February 8th, 2017 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.