Image: The Spinoff
Image: The Spinoff

PoliticsApril 22, 2024

Government risks own goal in cutting funding for Growing up in New Zealand

Image: The Spinoff
Image: The Spinoff

A study that tracks the life course of 6,000 kids provides crucial data for government decision making and spending, say those involved. Yet the axe hovers over Growing up in New Zealand, writes Max Rashbrooke.

The government risks sabotaging its own targets – on school attendance, for instance – if it cuts funding for one of the jewels in the country’s research crown, the Growing Up in New Zealand study. It also risks wasting money already spent preparing to collect the study’s data.

That’s the message from people who know the study well and have spoken to The Spinoff while ministers debate whether or not to renew its funding.

Since 2009, Growing Up in New Zealand has tracked the life course of 6,000 kids, starting with pre-birth interviews with their expectant parents. The study collects data from the families across a host of issues – from housing quality to health problems, from poverty levels to immunisation rates, from school results to reports of depression and anxiety. It holds a treasure trove of information about the problems affecting young New Zealanders – and the potential solutions.

“The better our data are, the better we can make decisions,” says Kate Prickett, a Victoria University academic and one of the lead researchers for the study. Without this kind of research, she adds, the country has “less confidence that government resources are getting to those who need them, or whether the money we’re spending is making a difference”.

Photo: Getty Images

Growing Up in New Zealand is, crucially, a longitudinal study: it follows the same group of people, rather than interviewing a new cohort each year as standard surveys do. This allows it to say far more about cause and effect: researchers can look at changes in families’ lives and see whether they are linked to a particular policy. In this sense, Growing Up in New Zealand is like the famed Dunedin study, but focused on a younger, more diverse cohort.

Waikato University’s Polly Atatoa Carr, another lead researcher on the study, says it has already changed policy. Its findings on the number of rentals lacking smoke alarms, for instance, directly influenced a 2016 decision to mandate alarm installation. Its research into families’ experience of paid parental leave similarly inspired extensions to that programme.

Yet the axe hovers over Growing Up in New Zealand. It received $30m over four years in the 2023 budget, but in February the contract to carry out the work was not renewed by the Ministry for Social Development. 

It is not clear why: the move may reflect scepticism about the study or just a general desire to run the rule over all pre-existing spending. Social development minister Louise Upston told RNZ that her government “values the work that the … study has produced over time, and we would like to see it continue. We are considering options for ongoing funding of the study and will be making decisions on this in due course.”

Something for Upston and colleagues to consider is whether they can even achieve their goals without surveys like Growing Up in New Zealand. Take the much-heralded drive to reduce truancy. “Context drives outcomes,” Atatoa Carr says. Families may be dealing with multiple life shocks, or having to help others in their community, or experiencing poverty that forces their children into work. “If we are interested in government targets on school attendance, you actually aren’t going to understand the drivers of attendance, or non-attendance, without really rich data from those families and the children themselves.”

Social development minister Louise Upston (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Some of the study’s findings have been startling. Last year, for instance, it revealed that between the ages of 8 and 12, half of all children move house, one-fifth doing so multiple times. Often these are involuntary moves, caused by events like rentals being sold, tenancies terminated and rents increased. Families’ links to local health services – GPs, immunisation appointments and the like – can be disrupted, sometimes permanently, while school and other community connections can also be lost.

“The changing situation of families is extraordinary,” Atatoa Carr says. “We never expected to find the level of moving house that we found.” And the longer the survey continues, the more valuable it is. The positive impacts of early childhood education, for instance, may not fully show up until adolescence. “We’re only just starting to get those outcomes now.”

Both the study and its participants are at a sensitive stage. The children are now 14 or 15, and this year’s planned interviews – now on hold – are the last before they turn 16 and will have to consent to data collection in their own right.

If, in other words, this year’s interviews don’t take place, researchers will have no chance to explain to the young people why they should take part in the next round, set down for two years’ time. The risk then is that, approached in 2026, they feel they’re being cold-called after a four-year gap – and refuse consent and drop out, weakening the study’s coverage.

Significant sums were also spent this summer training and equipping dozens of workers to carry out this year’s interviews. If they don’t go ahead, that money – an as-yet-undisclosed amount – will be wasted.

Protecting the study’s budget would make sense on many fronts, Atatoa Carr says, not least because the biggest expenses by far – designing the study and recruiting participants – were committed long ago. Money spent to maintain the future interview rounds – expected to last until the participants are 21 – would be “a marginal cost for maximal benefit”. She, and others, hope the government heeds that message.

Keep going!