Properly Assessing Income Adequacy in New Zealand

New Zealand Economic Papers, August 1995, p.89-101.(1)

Kewords: Distributional Economics;

Abstract: This paper is a response to “Assessing Income Adequacy in New Zealand”, by Edith Brashares. Despite the paper’s claim to involve “empirical” assessment, her methods rely primarily on not very plausible assumptions. This paper reviews them, reaffirms the main New Zealand development of the assessment of income adequacy which the original paper all but ignored, and concludes with a brief discussion on the role of introspective analysis in economic science and social policy.

I. Introduction

Over at least the last two decades there have been systematic attempts to assess income adequacy in New Zealand. “Assessing Income Adequacy in New Zealand” (Brashares 1993) dismisses them – and misrepresents – in a single sentence “the approach … that adopts the benefit level as the standard is not included” (1993:186). Instead the paper returns to a procedure which was considered and superseded twenty years ago. This paper reviews the Brashares approaches, showing how subjective they are, and restates the alternative approach which replaced them. In the final section the methodological underpinnings of the two approaches are considered. The paper is primarily one of method, and the exact income adequacy line is not the main concern.

While the adequacy aspect of the paper is the focus it should be noted that the paper contributes to an established New Zealand research program of investigating the anatomy of the aggregate income distribution, especially of low income people (e.g. Bevin et al 1978; Department of Statistics 1990; Easton 1976, 1991b, 1994, 1995; Mowbray 1993; NZPC 1988, 1990; Snively 1986, 1987, 1988). An especially valuable aspect of the study is that it is an early attempt to assess the impact of housing assistance, as well as the greater level of detail.

The Brashares paper uses three general types of standards to determine income adequacy, which are discussed briefly below, plus the household equivalence scale used. All exhibit the same underlying methodology of arbitrary assumptions.

II. Food Standard Based Criteria

“The food share standard is based on the cost of food where these costs are converted by a multiplier, the inverse of the Engel coefficient, to total income levels.” (Brashares 1993:189). The chosen bundle of food is a “minimum”. The particular total comes from the FOCAS Information Service of the University of Otago, who regularly value a food plan of the Department of Health at local (Dunedin) prices.(2) The paper then adds an adjustment for “household consumption economies” by deducting 20 percent for the amount for two adults and two ten year old children.(3) The deduction quantum is derived from an American study.

The level was checked against the provision of food for the prison population. The text is obscure as to how this was done, but Brashares and Aynsley reports for the March quarter 1990, “the average cost of feeding a prisoner was $27.09 per week. Increasing this value by 25 percent to adjust for the significant economies an institution can reap,(4) this works out to $33.86 per week or roughly the same amount as the basic food plan.” (1990: Annex 4:2) There is no adjustment for food grown within the prison, for gifts of fruit to prisoners by visitors, and for prisoner purchases of food from their pocket money. In fact the basic food plan for males was $32.05 for an adult man and $29.47 for an adult woman, (5) an average of $31.93 weighted by the gender balance in prison. Ignoring any extras the prisoners had, they were still getting 6 percent more food than the basic food plan. (6)

Three multipliers were used – three, four, and five. The diophantine emphasis on integers is intriguing. It is clearly unnecessary, since the Royal Commission on Social Security recommended a $20.00 benefit level when the average weekly food costs for an adult was $3.93, (7) a non-integer ratio of 5.09. In any case food prices do not move precisely with overall consumer prices, so either the income adequacy line would have to be updated by the food price index (which would be odd), or if another index (e.g. the consumer price index) were used an integer in one year will be a non-integer in the next.

A further complication is how to apply the integer by gender. Most food plans have different levels for adult by gender (and some by age). If an average adult food plan is chosen, then different multipliers are being used for each gender. If there is an insistence on the same integer then men would have a higher income adequacy level than women.(8)

There is hardly any justification for the choice of integer in the paper. Brashares appears to favour “four”, saying that “three” may be too stringent (1993:190). But so might four, or whatever.

The method comes from Orshansky (1963, 1965). Her work is widely misunderstood. Previous to it, the discussion of the poor in America had been “centred about an ad hoc definition adopted in 1963. Under this definition a family of two persons or more with an income less than $3000 and one person alone with less than $1500 were considered poor” (1965:11). Orshansky was attempting to refine the measure. Even so she described her measures as “arbitrary” (1965:10), and “interim” (1965:12). Decades later Ruggles was to summarise her contribution as “[a]lthough Orshansky’s thresholds bore only a very approximate relationship to a `scientifically’ determined minimum level of subsistence, the fact they incorporate at least some adjustment for family size and composition made them an advance over much previous work” (1990:4).

Moreover Orshansky is not primarily using the measure to calculate the number of poor, but to identify the characteristics of the poor, the task to which the bulk of her 1965 paper is devoted. (9) Rereading her paper one is struck by the sensitivity, understanding, and intelligence of the author to the problems inherent in her method. In 1965 Orshansky’s work represented progress on what had gone before. That is not true a quarter of a century later.

In making these points I am not arguing that Brashares chose the wrong parameters. Stephens (1992) may have been more generous in his choice, but he is equally arbitrary because he is also making subjective assumptions without reference to the actual experiences of households.

The issue here is the methodology. That Brashares, Stephens, and others may argue over the parameters without any means of resolving the conflict is indicative of how pseudo-scientific the method is.

II. The Relative Income Standard

In this approach Brashares took as her standard 50 percent of the median disposable income. Again the figure of 50 percent (the inverse of an integer) is arbitrary, while the conceptually correct reference household is so problematic that Brashares uses two, that for a four person household and that for a three person one, again illustrating the subjectiveness of the approach.

III. Relative Earnings

Brashares misunderstands the Royal Commission on Social Security. Two benchmarks are used: the award rate for building and engineering labourers, and lower quartile male wages. In each case the benchmark proportion used by the Royal Commission was used (except that she uses the mean average wage rather than the lower quartile).

The Royal Commission did not intend these benchmark proportions to be used uncritically for two decades (1972:192), especially as they were advocating the introduction of a very different approach when data from the Household Survey became available. Moreover as Brashares finds the two benchmarks give quite different adequacy levels in 1990, differing by 11.4 percent, this being (roughly) the amount that average earnings have risen since 1971 relative to the labourer’s award. The Royal Commission’s choice of the two benchmarks was very dependent on the two levels being the same (1972:189).

Before turning to the household equivalence scale, it should be mentioned that Brashares almost expresses surprise that her various standards are close to one another. “Despite different methods, some of the standards are quite similar” (1993:193) and “[d]espite the different approaches the standards tended to cluster around the $12,500 p.a. and $15,000 p.a. levels for a family of four” (1993:186). This seems to be inconsistent with the argument that levels are based on arbitrary assumptions, although one wonders whether there is quite the clustering claimed for them. (10)

The paradox is resolved by distinguishing between “arbitrary” and “random”. The used parameters are subjective, but they were not randomly chosen, insofar as they are not independent of one another but chosen, probably unconsciously, to give a similar overall picture. Someone who felt more generous than Brashares could have carried out the same arbitrary methodology, but with parameters 25 percent higher, had levels in turn 25 percent higher, and professed the same surprise about the similarity of the levels.

IV. The Household Equivalence Index

In order to get from the family of four to other household composition, Brashares uses a household equivalence index, devised by Jensen (1978, 1988) She says – quite correctly – that the scale “is not generated from New Zealand expenditure data” (1993:187). Brashares and Aynsley is even more critical of the Jensen scale. “Surprisingly, his scale is not based on analysis of New Zealand expenditure data, but is more ad hoc in nature” (1990:24). The criticism applies equally to Brashares’ own work.

The pseudo-scientific nature of the approach is evident by going back to the original paper. Jensen writes down a mathematical function which requires two non-trivial parameters. The method sets the single adult household at .6 (i.e. relative to 1.0 for couples), and the two adult-four child household at 2, and solves to get the required parameters: one measures the economies of scale from living in a larger household, the other measures the relative weight in expenditure of a child compared to an adult. It could be said that the .6 comes from some empirical work, (11) but the 2 comes entirely from introspection as far as one can assess. Ten years later Jensen altered the scale, again with little reference to local evidence. (12)

There are a number of New Zealand Household Equivalence Scales which have a firmer empirical underpinning. It is useful to look at them in terms of the Jensen assumptions:

Parameters for Different Scales
Household Equivalence Scale

One Adult
of Six
Jensen (1978) 0.60 2.00
Jensen (1988) 0.65 1.75
Easton (1973) (13) .64 1.83
Easton (1980b) (14) 0.53 2.07
Smith (1989) (15) 0.61 2.16

Parameter Estimates

Jensen (1978) .737 .781
Jensen (1988) .621 .730
Easton (1973) (13) .644 .778
Easton (1980b) (14) .916 .606
Smith (1989) (15) .713 .972

The effect of using the ad hoc Jensen scale rather than one of the more empirically based scales is to reduce the income adequacy level for large households relative to small ones. This has important fiscal implications since the social security benefit structure in New Zealand is based on a two adult household. Thus the Jensen scale justifies a lower child support than the empirical evidence suggests, keeping down spending on social security and also the replacement ratio (the benefit to earnings relativity) for families.

While the main point here is to emphasise the underlying methodology of introspection rather than any significant empirical basis, a double counting in the Brashares measurements should be mentioned. Earlier we noted she adjusted the food plan for a family of four for the economies of scale. She then applies the Jensen scale, which already has an economies of scale for food (among other things) built into it. If she had used single person households as the reference for the food plan, her deprivation levels would have been higher for the same integers.

To appreciate the total absurdity of the approach, consider what adjustments are necessary as user charges are increased. For simplicity consider if education was fully charged. How would that change the income adequacy measures, since evidently families now need more income because they pay school fees? There is no automatic mechanism in the determination of the Jensen household equivalence scale which would adjust for the change. Prima facie the measures would remain exactly the same. Brashares and Jensen could make a series of ad hoc adjustments to their parameters, but what principles would they use? At the end of the day their approaches involve a series of unstated and obscure assumptions, many of which are not value free.

The paper claims that Rutherford et al (1990) suggests that different equivalence scales will give broadly equivalent income distributions (p.187-8). My view of the same evidence is they do not, because the small differences shown in the tabulations can result in substantial differences in absolute numbers. Moreover the composition of those at any income level – say between households with children and those without – will be affected by the choice of scale. The referee, who raised this issue, noted that the paper cites Buhmann et al (1988) which demonstrates different scales leads to significant differences in the poverty profile across different types.

V The Royal Commission on Social Security

Superficially, the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security might be seen to have carried out a procedure similar to that of Brashares. The Commission’s report looked at a number of income relativities – apparently a priori – selects a couple which seem relevant, and recommended a benefit level based on the designated earnings level. However this is a serious misrepresentation of the Commission.

Royal commissions take in evidence, sitting for hours listening to individuals and their representatives. Thus these commissioners were not a group of academics isolated in a Wellington building, but interacting, often on a daily basis, with people presenting submissions about their actual living circumstances. Twenty years on one can still capture the flavour of their situation by reading the evidence submitted to the Commission, and its record of proceedings. To appreciate the Royal Commission’s deliberations, we require a quite different conceptual framework from that provided by Brashares.

It is provided in the Commission’s report. In chapter 3 the Commission sets down the principle and aims of the social security system. The most famous is that in addition to enabling everyone to sustain life and health, the system should “ensure, within limitations which may be imposed by physical or other disabilities, that everyone is able to enjoy a standard of living much like the rest of the community, and thus is able to feel a sense of participation in and belonging to the community (1972:63, original’s italics). This principle was adopted as the focus of social policy until 1991 (Easton 1992). One of its effects was to shift the focus of poverty from absolute poverty, that is sustaining life and health, to relative poverty, enabling the participation in and belonging to one’s community.

The report than goes on to look at the economic framework of social security, followed by four chapters on “need and income maintenance”. They are still worth reading, showing a freshness of vision, understanding, and compassion, as well as a hard headed realism of what can be delivered. The word which comes to mind is “wise”.

The Royal Commission looked at a variety of ways of assessing income adequacy, including the Orshansky method which it described as “crude measurements and lacking scientific precision” (1972:112), although it hoped the method could be developed.

The technical problem the Commission faced was how to turn its participation and belonging criteria into a quantitative one. It accepted that “[v]alue and political judgements will still be needed to decide what level of basic benefit is `adequate’, but it was handicapped by the lack of an household expenditure survey” (1972:129). In the end it chose a level for the basic benefit for a married couple of $31 a week in September 1971 circumstances.

Because it saw that prosperity should be shared throughout the community (1972:106) the Commission needed reference points by which the level could be adjusted over time. Hence the use of a designated earnings level based on ruling rates paid to building and engineering labourers and the lower quartile level of adult male earnings mentioned in the Brashares paper. There is no reference to inflation perhaps because it had not been a major problem in the previous two decades, while there had been modest economic growth. Moreover the Commission noted there were effective wage fixing procedures which were indexing wages to price changes.

It is common to identify three types of procedures to derive measures of income adequacy: income relativities, expenditure patterns, and deprivation experiences. Despite its reference points, and an awareness that there had to be an appropriate relativity between earnings and benefits, (16) the Royal Commission favoured the expenditure side approach. But its logic was moving it towards the deprivation indicators one. It cannot claim to be pioneering in this respect, for the Commission had consulted Peter Townsend, whose later published Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979) is perhaps the most elaborate statement of this deprivation approach. In any case the Royal Commission was intrigued by the promised official Household Expenditure and Income Survey (HEIS). (17)

Sadly three factors limited the use of HEIS. First, its earliest year was 1973/74, but initially it was not in a very usable form. (18) Second, the data was initially not easily accessible especially at unit record level, although this no longer is true. Third, the effective use of the data requires substantial and ongoing resources which have never been forthcoming, especially from government agencies who in other affluent countries would be the main sources of funding. The perfunctory use of HEIS in the Brashares paper is a good indication of how little progress has been made over the two decades.

A number of other factors also led to a leaping over the expenditure based approach to one utilizing indicators of deprivation. There was a widespread suspicion that the Royal Commission had been too miserly with its recommended benefit level, and so there was attempts to assess the adequacy. More important in the long run was the research program that the Royal Commission implicitly suggested.

Perhaps the first major study was the Survey of Persons Aged 65 Years and Older (1975) by the Department of Social Welfare, although Peter Cuttance’s lesser known Poverty in Large Families in Hamilton (1974) could claim precedence in some respects. A later study with similar rigour to that in the Survey is the Christchurch Child Development Survey’s analysis of the situation of families with young children (Ferguson et al 1978, 1980a, 1980b).

The method involves looking at various behavioural features of the survey respondents. A typical question might be to ask the respondent to what extent they have to economize – going without meat, health care, or visiting – because of a lack of income. Their answers are aggregated and to give a pattern of income levels in relation to activities which inhibit the household’s ability to properly belong to and participate in society. At this point a judgement is made on the basis of the evidence which identifies an income adequacy level. There is almost certainly no way of avoiding judgement in assessing income adequacy. The advantage of this procedure is that it is not obscured behind some pseudo-scientific choice of integers, but is explicit and informed by the actual living conditions of the community.

Unfortunately such studies, involving proper samples of a total population, are no less – and probably more – expensive than interrogation of the HEIS data base. In recent years the data used for the approach depends on (typically) voluntary (and usually in no sense statistically random) surveys of a population of the poor. On a somewhat ad hoc basis – for often the questions are not clearly designed with this purpose in mind – one tries to assess to what extent these people’s income is insufficient so that they are not properly participating and belonging. Of course, as the Royal Commission insisted, such an assessment involves values and political judgements, but they should be explicit so that the reader can evaluate the adequacy of the income.(19)

Brashares and Aynsley criticise the approach. “The primary advantage of the deprivation approach is that material well-being is broadly defined. … The difficulty of the approach is this does not distinguish between consumption choices because of differences in tastes rather than resource limits. For example, the index may determine someone is deprived because he or she does not consume meat but this may reflect the choice to be a vegetarian” (1990:16). It is hard to see this as a compelling objection, since it takes no great skill to design a questionnaire which asks people to distinguish whether they forgo meat by choice or because they cannot afford it. Moreover the technique is looking for a household income average, not whether a particular household is deprived, and the various effects are likely to average out. However were this to be a powerful objection, one might wonder how a food plan plus multiplier based method would work. Would vegetarians have a proportionally lower clothing allowance because vegetables are cheaper than meat?

The various studies of low income households suggested that the social security level recommended by the Royal Commission of Social Security, adjusted for inflation, (20) was not very far from a reasonable measure of income adequacy if the goal was that of the Royal Commission’s enabling the household to participate in and belong to its community. Today this Royal Commission set benefit level for married couples, adjusted for changes in the price level, is called the Benefit Datum Level or BDL echoing, but yet distancing the concept from, the international acronym PDL for poverty datum level (or line).

The complexity of the story just related contrasts with Brashares curt dismissal of the adoption of the “benefit level” (rather than the BDL which need not be the current benefit level) as a measure of income adequacy (1993:186). Indeed she has got the story exactly the wrong way around. Because certain levels were judged to be a measure of adequate income, social security benefits were set at that level. The benefit cuts of April 1991, did not change the level of the BDL, even though they changed the levels of social security benefits.(21)

That does not mean we should not review the appropriateness of those levels. Apparently unbeknown to Brashares, there has been such work (reported in Easton 1986). Even so ignorance is not an excuse to lapse back to a procedure which was rejected two decades ago as inadequate without any technical improvements.


While more could be said about the contents of the paper. Within its limitations the paper does contribute to the mapping of the household income distribution. (22) However at this stage, some review of the underlying methodology is more important.

First note that insofar as there is any empirical content it comes from overseas. From which we might conclude there has been a deferential mentality by those who do the work, compounded by their using approaches which, while progressive some decades ago, have become outmoded. Meanwhile they ignore subsequent work in New Zealand. But behind this approach, be it done here or offshore, there is a deeper problem.

Suppose an audience of low income New Zealanders were told that a measure of income adequacy (a poverty level) had been developed which was dependent upon a priori theorisation and the use of ad hoc assumptions, but which had no reference at all to the conditions in which they lived. Their least strong reaction would be astonishment. Yet this is the approach of the paper. It constructs a deprivation index based without any reference to the living conditions of the deprived.

The original work in this paper was carried out in a department of state which, shortly after the work was completed, recommended substantial cuts to benefit levels. It matters little whether one of the new benefit levels was precisely one of those suggested by the original work (Easton 1991a). What is important is that the cuts were made in a policy context in which research could be carried out oblivious to the actual living circumstances of those who were to be affected. (23) Familiarity with the empirical research in New Zealand would have led to the correct prediction there would be a sharp rise in severe hardship, as the new benefit levels were often well below the adequate income to attain the Royal Commission of Social Security’s aims of the system. (24)

Yet the purpose of this response is not to plead for a different income adequacy level, nor for higher benefit levels. Certainly the author has views on these issues, some of which may surprise the reader. But they belong to another paper.

Rather this paper is a appeal for an approach by economists which recognises that the subject of the investigation and policy belong to the same subspecies of the animal kingdom as the researcher – sentient human beings. The reality of their life – their hopes and fears, laughter and tears – should be incorporated into any analysis. In the end the paper contributes little to enable the drawing of conclusions about targeting and adequacy issues because this was ignored, as well as the problems discussed in this critique.

1.The author is grateful for useful contributions from three referees and the editor.
2. Brashares incorrectly attributes the food plan to FOCAS itself (1993:189).
3. Footnote 12 of Brashares (1993) unfortunately gives the impression that the food plan is based on “porterhouse steak”. A more representative item would be stewing steak.
4. The significant economies an institution can reach, are valued at exactly the same proportion as those available to a family of four, a 20 percent deduction being equal to a 25 percent increase.
5. The actual food level used in the Brashares paper for an adult, obtained by dividing the adequacy standard for a single adult household by the appropriate integer, was $27.31 a week, or 11.1 percent less than the average adult level recommended in the basic food plan (and even lower than the prisoner’s nutritional level).
6. The situation was anecdotally supported by prisoners giving their 1993 Christmas dinners desserts to beneficiaries, whom they judged worse off.
7. See (1972:122) adjusted for food price inflation.
8. Table 35 of Brashares and Aynsley (1990 Annex I:46) used the adult male food plan for a single adult household, and an adult female food plan for solo parent families.
9. Similarly a main concern of Easton (1976) was to draw attention to the majority of the poor being in households with dependent children.
10. The levels are $9,216, $12,288, $12,479, $14,460, $15,045, $15,361, and $16,765.
11. Even here there is a circularity, since the .6 was the ratio set by the social security benefits, which is what the Jensen scale is meant to be assessing.
12. Jensen does refer to overseas household equivalence scales. However Easton (1973) provides a nice illustration of how relative prices in different countries lead to different economies of scale effects. The paper begins with a New York needs index, and applies New Zealand prices to the quanta. The index in New York prices has a quite different pattern to the one in New Zealand prices.
13. Based on quantities developed for social assistance in New York, using New Zealand prices.
14. Based on expenditure patterns from New Zealand households, calibrated on savings ratio.
15. I have only reported the Canadian Method Scales (with adult clothes included in necessities), since the utility method ones give problematic results.
16. Although this is not an urgent issue when unemployment is low, as it was in 1971.
17. For a review of the underlying theory of household behaviour in such studies see Easton (1991b).
18. E.g. the income side of the household account was very imprecise.
19. For a study which attempted to synthesize various surveys into an overall conclusion see Easton (1986).
20. I have agonized elsewhere to what extent the BDL should be adjusted for changes in real standards of living (e.g. Easton 1980a).
21. Similarly, when the link between the benefit for the aged (now New Zealand superannuation) and the standard social security benefit was broken, the BSl level was not revised, although it was renamed, from PDL, since sometimes people thought the “P” referred to “pensioner”.
22.One referee made the following comments about some aspects of the paper not addressed here, but which deserve to go on the public record for completeness.

“… it is not clear how [Brashares] derived the conclusion [there may have been grounds to lower some benefit levels] from her own data. She makes reference in these contexts to her results for income standards of $12,500 and $15,000 for a couple with two children, but she does not say which particular standard these correspond to. The closest are the 50% Median Income – Four Persons standard for which the income threshold is $12,479 and the Labourer Award standard for which the income threshold is $15,045 for a couple with two children (Table 1). But no breakdowns by household type are provided for the former standard (cf. Tables 4-7).

“In any case it is not clear precisely which numbers in her breakdown tables can or were used to draw her conclusions – we are not told. Comparisons of headcount ratios across household types?how was this information combined wit the benefit eligibility levels in table 3? I think Brashares is trying to make something of the fact that poverty rates are lower for various beneficiary types relative to non-recipient types, but this might indicate that in one sense the benefit system is actually very effective for those covered by it, though in another sense that the fact that other groups may be falling outside the social safety net can indicate an ineffective system. There is a literature ignored by Brashares which might provide a useful framework to assess these issues – the literature on benefit targeting, as developed by Beckerman and others.
23. That the work does not just reflect the author’s own perception is evident from her acknowledgement of the contribution of six (senior) Treasury colleagues.
24. For some, not necessarily scientific, reports of the consequences of the benefit cuts see Dalziel (1993), List et al (1992), NZCCSS (1992), People’s Select Committee (1992).

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