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PoliticsJanuary 22, 2020

It is folly to take on social dysfunction while avoiding all mention of the p-word


New research encourages ‘interventions’ – things like programmes aimed at helping poorer families to ‘be better parents’ – without addressing substantially issues of poverty, and it’s a bit like trying to prop up a crumbling brick wall with a piece of four-by-two, writes Max Rashbrooke.

Imagine a team of explorers who, searching for the source of a major river, get two-thirds of the way there but then, for no apparent reason, give up. That’s the image suggested by New Zealand’s most recent inequality research, a piece of work that could have profound implications for this year’s election.

A multinational team of researchers, including New Zealanders Stephanie D’Souza and Richie Poulton, have just published research in Nature showing that a relatively small number of our citizens are responsible for a disproportionately large number of benefit claims, public hospital stays and criminal convictions. This will surprise almost no one, although it does no harm to have our intuitions confirmed.

It is the interpretation of the findings, rather than the findings themselves, that matters politically. The researchers note that this high-needs population also lacks “features of human capital important for workforce readiness”: its members are likely to leave school early, experience significant mental illness, and have weak brain development in their early years. This is worrying, the researchers say, because these people will be left behind in the age of automation. And so we should be “delivering interventions” and “investing in individuals’ education and training potential”.

This all makes sense, up to a point. But the researchers do not seem to have asked : What lies behind all this? Why are some children struggling so much? The obvious answer is poverty. It is at the root of not all social evils, but certainly many of them.

See also: ‘Future criminals revealed at age three’? Not so fast, says Dunedin Study head 

Families in poverty usually do their best for their children. But the stresses and strains of poverty – not knowing how to pay the next bill, living in substandard housing, worrying about medical and school fees, and so on – often overwhelm them. And it is hard for children to do well at school when their damp and mouldy house is making them sick, or several families are crowded into one place to cut costs, leaving the child with nowhere quiet to study.

If poverty is at the root of many problems, eliminating or reducing it is correspondingly the solution. As the researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw sets out in her book Pennies from Heaven, a huge evidence base suggests that simply increasing family income has a drastic effect on social problems. It frees families from the constant strain of worrying about bills, helps them shake off debt and other burdens, and allows them to spend more money on their children’s development, which is what the evidence overwhelmingly shows they do.

“Money works,” she writes. “Cash assistance to low-income families has been shown to improve children’s mental development, how well they learn, how they feel about themselves and behave, how parents interact with their children, and mothers’ mental well-being.” Giving poor families an extra US$1,000 a year, for instance, can close a quarter of the educational achievement gap between their kids and richer children.

While cash will not solve all the problems, it is impossible to imagine that the scale of dysfunction the research identifies would still exist in a world where we have largely or wholly eliminated poverty. Yet I could not see poverty mentioned once in the Poulton and D’Souza research. It is this bizarre absence that lends their work the air of an expedition that quit partway through.

This question is certain to crop up in this year’s election campaign, in which poverty will be a central issue. National MPs in particular will be tempted to duck the core issue – how to increase the incomes and wealth of poorer families, whether they are in work or not – and instead propose ideas that target only the symptoms of poverty, in the manner of this recent research.

That does not mean there is no merit in the “interventions” that D’Souza and her colleagues support, only that they are insufficient in themselves. When set against the scale of the poverty facing New Zealand families, such “interventions” – which might mean programmes to improve poor people’s parenting skills, though the researchers aren’t specific – look a little bit like trying to prop up a crumbling brick wall with a piece of four-by-two.

This year we can also expect to hear repeated cries of that comforting phrase, “It’s all about education!” Schooling is of course central to children’s prospects, and D’Souza and co are right to note that poor results will prevent these young people from gaining high-skilled, highly paid jobs. But again, that substantially misses the point.

Kinley Salmon, an expert on automation, argues in his recent book Jobs, Robots and Us that preparing ourselves for technological change is about far more than just schooling. It also requires – guess what? – greater efforts to reduce poverty and rebuild the welfare state, so as to cushion the dislocating effects of technology and help people deal with more frequent job losses.

Moreover, skills and qualifications are not even the principal workplace issue when it comes to poverty. Even if automation does hollow out the workforce, the large number of high-skilled jobs left will be balanced by a large number of supposedly “low skilled” ones. These are jobs like caring for sick elderly people, work which – despite its label – is immensely demanding in emotional, technical and physical terms.

People working in these jobs don’t need more qualifications: they need better pay. And their poor pay has very little to do with their schooling, and everything to do with the discrimination they experience, the undervaluing of their work, and their weak bargaining position when faced with powerful employers.

If, in short, we are to end the world that this recent research describes, in which a small part of the population battles immense difficulties on multiple fronts, we will need to deal with the deep and interlocking structures that shape their lives – the racism they are exposed to, the substandard housing in which they live, and above all the inadequate benefits and pitifully low pay on which they are supposed to survive. We cannot stop partway on the path towards fixing social problems.


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