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The Morgan Foundation's Jess Berentson-Shaw tackles the Minister of Corrections and Police's view that for every poor family that is stressed, there is public money available to assist them

The Morgan Foundation's Jess Berentson-Shaw tackles the Minister of Corrections and Police's view that for every poor family that is stressed, there is public money available to assist them

By Jess Berentson-Shaw*

Judith Collins happily chucked her “Non-PC” views into the supercharged arena that is the current debate on low-income low-opportunity families in New Zealand.

What she had to say contained elements of truth.

And because the story that is often told about low income families is far too simplistic, when someone steps up with a smattering of some complex truths scattered amongst the mythology it gets traction.

So what did she say that was true, and what was myth?

The true bits

Judith Collins tells us that there is money available to everyone who needs it. She is (mostly) right.

There is (some) money available for low-income families in New Zealand. Problem is there is not enough of it.

Prior to the late 80s and early 90s in New Zealand we had a pretty solid welfare state in the sense that welfare provided more than the bare minimum of support for families who needed it. However in 1991, following mass unemployment after rapid deregulation of the New Zealand Economy, benefit rates were slashed drastically to below poverty lines and they have barely moved since.

By most measures the number of children living in poverty rose at that time, and have stayed there since.

So there is money available, just not enough. To add insult to injury, there has been an insidious growth in the conditions and sanctions that come with benefits.

These conditions are not based on any evidence that they improve outcomes for families or children, and instead can actually make families more stressed and less well off than ever. And stress as it turns out is the real problem in low-income, low opportunity families.

So Judith Collins is also right that with low incomes and few opportunities there comes as she puts it “a poverty of ideas”.

The science tells us that the toxic impact of stress brought about by insufficient resources eats away at family relationships, even at babies and children’s physical development. The grinding stress of having to cover bills, keeping children warm & healthy, worry about whether casual work will become no work is certainly no good for optimal thinking or ideal family functioning.

But then Judith Collins gets it all so very very wrong

We have previously covered the total lack of evidence for the misinformation that Judith Collins gave voice to. Most low-income parents are concerned deeply about their children’s welfare and want to do their best for them. We see this in research across numerous societies. In the UK for example when cash benefits increased for those on the lowest incomes as part of the child poverty package of the Blair Government, the cash was spent on the children. Clearly they are errors of fact that still have some palatability amongst those who like what Judith Collins has to say. However, she is also wrong in thinking that this is how most New Zealanders see the issue.

Actually the evidence tells us that most New Zealanders place great value on qualities including social justice, helpfulness, equality and respect for others. So they understand that most (not all) but most parents work hard for their children, love them, and want the best for them. They understand that those parents on low incomes with few opportunities find it very hard to deliver good outcomes for their children if the rope they get thrown is just that little too short and has bits of glass embedded in it.

How much is Minister Collins right and how much is she wrong?

Where is her evidence that the poor are bad parents? From what we can see there is none.

What we do know is that there are around 5000 children who have been removed from the legal care of their parents. We do know that not all these children are poor- abuse happens across society.

We also know that there is no evidence the state does a better job of looking after these kids than their parents did. If fact we know these are the kids who do worst in New Zealand.

So people in glass houses much?

If we do assume that the majority of these 5000 children are from low-income families (given the stress pathway there is a link between insufficient resources and parent/child relationships) lets put that in context. There are a number of robust measures of child poverty (despite silly claims to the contrary), but if we take the most severe groups (children who are both income poor and in severe material deprivation), there are about 90,000 of them. So maybe (and that is a pretty huge ‘taking a guestimate finger in the air’ type maybe) around 6% of children in low-income families have parents or caregivers who don’t know how to keep them safe.

So while the Minister might be a bit right, we can’t see any evidence that she is more than 6% right, and even then this is pretty weak data. What Minister Collins has done is tar the other 94% of families with the same brush, when in fact most of them do an incredible job in challenging circumstances.

So what to make of the Minister’s approach?

From an evidence-based perspective it is extremely lightweight. This raises the question as to why the Minister has reached for the megaphone to broadcast a false message:

(a) She likes to take a lightweight approach and prefers anecdotal-based to empirical evidence

(b) she has a political agenda – to reinforce the prejudice that a particular cohort of right wing supporters have – playing to her constituency.

(c) she’s acknowledging that her government doesn’t like the real solutions to poverty and so is deciding to play the “blame” card to disguise that inadequacy

(d) she actually doesn’t care that the bulk of poor people are that way through no fault of their own and is quite happy to call them names, to label them as bad unloving parents in full knowledge of the evidence that shows that’s not correct

Only Judith Collins knows which is correct but the fact remains she is mostly wrong, about 94% wrong by our calculations. Her reasons are hers to acknowledge.

What actually works?

We are currently finalising a book on what works best to improve child outcomes for those from low-income low opportunity families. Targeted programmes (like intervening in families and implementing parenting or education programmes) certainly have some evidence of effect, they are popular amongst the voting public and can be very useful for achieving improvements in very specific outcomes for children. However, one of the most effective ways to improve child outcomes (based on the intervention literature) is unconditional cash transfers for families. That means giving them more money without conditions attached to it.

We can understand the effectiveness of this approach a few ways. The main being that, as we mentioned earlier, a significant pathway through which children from low-income families suffer poor outcomes is stress. Both their exposure to stress in the family, and hence poor family dynamics and relationships, and their own stress responses, which limit brain and cognitive development, have long term impacts on their development. Unconditional cash gives parents the opportunity to reduce the stress resulting from insufficient resources in a way that works best for them and their families. No family experiences stress the same way or have the same exact constraints on their resources. That the government would know what yours or my main sources of stress are and how to counter them effectively seems a little ludicrous really.

Of course this is not the whole solution – unconditional cash transfers are modelled to halve the difference in outcomes between low-income children and their better off peers. So targeted interventions will still have a role to play. There will still be some “dysfunctional parents” who will treat their children poorly even if they have a higher income.

However, one of the main issues we find in New Zealand with targeted programmes is while popular they are just not as effective as we think they are going to be. One of the big issues is that they work in a research scenario but when they get taken up by Governments they get changed so much that they are not longer delivering the components that are really effective. We also have a problem with appropriate high quality evaluation. Another reason cash transfers as a first step has a lot of benefits.

All this is covered in detail in the book. But you can read a once over lightly on the issue starting with this blog.

Finally, lets consider again what New Zealanders value. They value respect for others and for whatever reasons Judith Collins is showing very little of this for hard working parents. She is not crushing the ‘PC’ brigade, she is just wrong, wrong on what the evidence says and wrong about what New Zealanders value.

By reminding ourselves of the humans, the parents, the people involved and the respect and value they all deserve, we get much closer to discussing the real solutions for low-income low opportunity families based on the science. So why does Minister Collins and others wish to avoid that particular discussion?

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. She holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University.. This article is here with permission and first appeared here.

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A very convoluted article. the Author tries to be cute but the message, whatever it is, is unintelligible.


... yup , it's a confusing shemozzle ...

Still struggling to find where Crusher Collins calls all low income adults " poor parents " ... as the author claims ...

... judging by some high profile cases ( Delegats whining about their " boy " , and getting him freed from conviction after bashing a policewoman unconscious , and then continuing to hit her ) ... I'd say there's some pretty poor parenting amongst the income rich folks , if you care to look hard enough ... .... or the school in Christchurch which caved into rich parents legal threats , after their " boys " were apprehended riding on an airport baggage carousal ... and the " boys " got off scot free , allowed to continue competing in a national rowing tournament ....

... failed the comprehension test , Jess !

I thought the article was clear and reasoned, the simple fact of the matter is you don't agree with what you have read

Clear and reasoned not. eg. the author says "evidence that the poor are bad parents? From what we can see there is none." Then the author focuses on increasing the incomes to improve parenting. Just does not string together. Whatever I might agree with or not, she contradicts herself.

"Then the author focuses on increasing the incomes to improve parenting" she doesn't...... that's your bias showing................ the author makes a case for increasing incomes to improve "child outcomes"

There must be a choir around somewhere, I expect that would be where this preaching article is aimed. I can only make assumptions regarding the writers background but, from the content, I surmise their closest experience would likely be reviewing the "evidence" mentioned. As always, this is just a loose term for some dodgy interpretation of some vague and impersonal statistics collected solely with the intent of sensationalism. If you grow up, live and work in the environments where these statistics are collected you get to see the normal behaviour of those subjects of the article and will know that they are adept at what they do to illicit maximum funds for minimal effort. The bulk of them are and will remain there because of their own past and ongoing life choices and behaviour. The "evidence" is that those who wish to improve can and do while many just accept.

Back in the early 1990's I was doing a job for a woman, her son was with her; a bright young lad of about eight. He asked me about what I did; my trade. After I'd finished giving him a bit of a run down I asked him what he would like to do when he grew up. At this point the mother loudly interrupted "there'll be nothing for him, he'll be on the dole like the rest of us". Now, that may have proven to be true but why would you say it?
The writer of this article reminds me of that appalling woman.
We hear a lot about the impact of colonisation. About the time the land of my Maori ancestors was being colonised my Scottish ancestors were the victims of the Highland clearances; one of the worst examples of genocide in history. They lost their land, livelihoods, loved ones and language with the survivors scattered to the four winds. With that background these intellectual yet idiots ( yes Anahera Herbert-Graves , I'm talking about you) would no doubt expect me to be barely functional. Another excuse for failure, why on earth would you want to encourage that?
Poverty is a way of thinking, an attitude, a bad habit or the result of a series of bad habits and, like the woman with the small boy, being passed from generation to generation. The future prospects are certainly not helped by suicidal diet and exercise habits, single parenthood, wasting time at school and a propensity to commit crime. Our disabled athletes have conquered their shortcomings, their pain. That's the attitude that should be encouraged.
We have the absurd situation where the median Kiwi is unable to raise a family or put a roof over their heads on the median income ($32K) without government assistance. 10% maybe you could understand; 50%? How did that happen with the changes over the last thirty years? Who is being served by privatisation, open slather immigration, globalisation, financialisation and corporatisation. Whole communities and half the population on the dole! If you wanted to destroy a people that would be a good way to do it. We need to wind back our absurd welfare system, incentivise honest work, start paying our people a living wage and stop undermining the work prospects of our most vulnerable with low quality immigration.

I'm not sure I agree with much of your comment, but the last sentence rings true. A higher minimum wage would help working families, and the welfare system. Some mass immigration has not helped low wages either, clearly. If and until such measures kick in, then I wouldn't want to see welfare or tax credits skinnied down any more. Most of the article above makes sense; the poorest families need targeted help, but more carrot than stick. I do feel for the stress that being a low income parent must cause.

Your ad homenim comments haven't added anything of substance, nor has your anecdotel "evidence". The published medical literature on health and social outcomes is clear enough.

I thought it was a good comment.

50% of new Zealand households earn more in tax credits or pay no tax at all in income tax. I am not sure we have much more we can give?

But of course GST was raised so that those low income tax payers would get clobbered that way.

Agreed and my guess is it will be 20% in 10 to 20 years

Oh you big hearted you, "giving" so much so that various employers can be subsidized in their quest to pay wages that people cannot live on. Go moan to them.

PA, I volunteer 3 hours of my week to charitable causes, and pay a little bit to charity each year and pay about 50% in taxes here in Germany. One minute we moan the government is building to much debt and the next out of thin air we want to give more to the bottom 50%. The simple answer is, there is nothing left to give...

If the 50% of taxpayers that control most of the money can't afford to pay tax, in what parallel universe can the 50% without any money pay tax?
To bring your argument to its logical conclusion, if one or two people ended up controlling all of the worlds monetary wealth, you would still be arguing that its inherently unfair for them to pay the resulting tax bill .
Its the price of living in a functioning society, try running a profitable business without one.

Sorry, I have read your comment 3 times... could you articulate a bit better?

The top 10-20% of income earners in NZ could easily pay another 3-4% p.a. in income tax.
I would well and truly be in that group - I would support it provided I could see that it was going to:
- More pay for key workers in education and healthcare
- Better infrastructure

We also need a CGT and a tax on foreign property buyers to bolster revenue and plow it back in where it is desperately needed

But it's not all about increasing taxes.
GST on new housing should be slashed to 7.5% for a 3 year period as an incentive to promote new housing.
Yes, there will be loss of revenue, but other taxes can make it up, plus all things being equal some of the revenue loss will be offset by a lot more building that should be seen over the 3 years

GST should be 0% for new builds

I'd be a big supporter for working for the dole...many countries cut you off after 6 to 12 months...(that is if they have the dole!!!)

While in Singapore I noticed a lot of old East Asian folk working as cleaners in the hotels and food halls. A taxi driver told me that in Singapore there is no welfare unless you work. If you work you can get some subsidies to top things up. Seemed like not such a bad idea.

whilst I agree with some kind of work for the dole, I know it cost a lot more and does not work for all.
its about getting discipline into people getting up and going to a job,
in the old days of PEP we had a group planting they would lay all the tools down and drive over them with the truck breaking the handles then played cards all day.
we have also tried employer subsidy and that was rorted and you have to be careful that you do not replace one part of the workforce with another
so even though there is plenty of tasks that could be done (now done by volunteers )how do you make it work
I like the idea of a non working dole and a working dole ie if you do work ( for an approved authorized organization , someone like doc, maintaining or building tracks) your dole get toped up to minimum wage for the hours worked

Surely if you are given money to stay alive, it would not be a big ask to turn up and do something with your time... Surely the expectation on others supporting someone would rely on that someone wanting to be part of the community supporting them? Or has our egalitarian society bred some kind of expectation that you should be given money when no one wants to hire you? If they lack the discipline, surely having no money would be a good motivator?

I think it only fair that after a certain time period, lets say 12 months, that if you don't have a job then you should earn your unemployment benefit at an hourly rate.

I will simplify my comment further for you kw. Using your logic, if one person controlled all the monetary wealth in the world, you would still be arguing that someone else is responsible for the tax bill.
Would you not?

OK - what I am saying is that the current tax rates are fair considering that 50% of household receive more in tax back or are tax neutral. In the case of your 1 person - I would say that they are paying their fair share considering that they pay for everyone else. There is no more money to give back in subsides unless you want to build more government debt.

Collins said there were people who didn't know how took after their children and also people who didn't see the need too. Undeniably true.
The extraordinary reaction to that seems to come from people who want to supress the idea that it is parents who are the core subjects here. They deny any discussion that even includes parents.

The Author gets it right stating that "Most low-income parents are concerned deeply about their children’s welfare and want to do their best for them". Hardly surprising. I don't believe I've ever met a parent that doesn't want the best for their kids.
However, I'd love to see some research done on the number of low income families that smoke heavily, take recreational drugs, and have a huge flat screen tv.
As a landlord, I see many tenants that are on similar incomes, in similar houses, with similar family numbers. The difference is attitude, and the "good" parents take their concern for their kids welfare to the next level and actually do something positive, rather than sinking into a negative lifestyle.
I have seen large windfalls of cash given to crap parents, and nothing changes.
Targeted assistance is vital.

Most low-income parents are concerned deeply about their children’s welfare and want to do their best for them.

I think this statement is wrong. It should read:
Most low-income parents are concerned deeply about their children’s welfare and want to do their what's best for them.

They want what's best but do not do what's best for their children. Many commenters seem confused about this.