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Are there any good choices when you live on a low income?

Last week ActionStation and the Morgan Foundation launched Liz and Sam’s story. Since then, the pick-a-path game based on the lives of New Zealand families living on low incomes has been played close to 16,000 times. Its co-creator Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw explains the two years of research underpinning the game.

Read Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw’s previous post about Liz and Sam’s story here.

New Zealand is a good place to bring up children for many people. It certainly is for my family.

My partner and I were both born into well off ‘nuclear’ families to healthy parents and we lived in warm, safe homes, all of which ensured we were in a good position to make the most of our education. We were both supported to get a higher education and as a result as adults we command good salaries and have money to save. My workplace supported me when I had a baby, changing my role to facilitate my return, and I qualified for paid parental leave so the rent was covered. Our house was warm and affordable, our landlord kind to us. Our babies were healthy and our physical and mental health good. We are a Pākehā couple descended from working and middle class European immigrants who benefitted from colonisation. Both our families have the means to help us out.

I tell you this to show that the conditions of our lives give my partner and I many choices, choices that enable our children to thrive. Yes, our individual skills and capabilities matter, but they have accumulated in the context of the advantages our families enjoy.

Unfortunately too many families in New Zealand don’t experience such advantageous conditions. Scientists have found that it is the conditions we live our lives in that have the biggest impact on families’ choices, and ultimately on children’s wellbeing.

In the health and wellbeing story of the pick a path tool we illustrate how the conditions of Liz and Sam’s life affect their choices and their health and wellbeing.

An illustration from Liz and Sam’s Story. Credit: Joshua Drummond

Trying to live on ‘not enough’ leads to toxic stress

In the interactive story that Chewy Data created, Liz and Sam are both working when they have their second child and after Liz takes some time off she goes back to work.

While they receive the accommodation supplement, their rental costs, like many New Zealanders’, are very high, taking well over half of their income (a reality for about 30% of low income two parent families). High childcare and transport costs kick in and Liz and Sam’s income barely covers it all. The real damage is done by the stress that Liz and Sam and their babies experience.

I often hear people say they could survive on a tight budget, but this type of assertion misses the truth at the heart of a low income and why children tend not to thrive. Taking a holiday in someone’s life and playing Monopoly games with their money is not the same as living with grinding economic stress.

Scientists have found that stress is key to low-income families outcomes. Economic stress impacts family relationships and mental health; it becomes toxic and affects children’s physical development – which has a lifetime impact. We know from brain imaging studies that children in resource-poor settings do not develop the same number of neural connections as other children (which means they are less set up for taking advantage of education). Their immune systems are also weaker as children and throughout life (even if they become better off as adults). All these conditions affect not only how children do in their first years, but their capabilities in their adult years.

Kids are suffering because they are poor and stressed

For Liz and Sam, the precarious and low paid work, high costs and poor housing conditions mean limited choices. Can you help them choose between getting into more debt and heating the house in winter?

New Zealand children from the least well off communities die from preventable illnesses, lung infections and diseases related to living in cold, damp, poor quality housing, at a rate that is six times higher than better off children. They and their parents’ living environments are more toxic, their neighbourhoods less safe, they have an increased burden of stress, and their mental health suffers. However, we can help Liz and Sam and give them better choices.

An illustration from Liz and Sam’s Story. Credit: Joshua Drummond

There are clear solutions to the challenges Liz and Sam face

We have much to be positive about. If New Zealand is a good place to raise my children, it can be a good place to raise all children. It is, simply put, a matter of the choices that politicians make, and they can choose to improve the conditions of people’s lives and in so doing improve the choices available to all families.

Here is what scientists have shown us can improve the conditions for all families in New Zealand and give parents many more choices:

  • When we improve incomes of families with babies and children (without adding stress in other ways, such as mandatory low paid work) families are able to choose to support their children and children thrive. Importantly for New Zealand’s “economic narrative” [PDF], their educational achievement and economic attainment improve.
  • The first years of a child’s life are the most critical years both in terms of the impact of insufficient resources and of policies that work. So investment and resources in these very early years is the most powerful thing we can do to improve lifetime wellbeing
  • There are many ways we can improve incomes and reduce stress, for example supplementing low incomes with unconditional support (e.g. a family benefit for all), allowing families to keep more of the money they earn (changing abatement rates), and removing sanctions associated with current income support.
  • A warm dry home for life, one that is cheap to heat and in a safe physical environment, is key to children’s health when they are young, and will help ensure they are healthy adults too – childhood illness has a lifetime impact.

The pick-a-path interactive gives you an idea of the choices available to one New Zealand family; can you choose a good ending for them? Ultimately, the point of the story is to show that we all have the choice to create a good ending for this family, and all families in New Zealand.


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