Closing the Gaps: Policy or Slogan?

Listener 25 November, 2000

Keywords Distributional Economics; Social Policy

For over a quarter of a century we have been quantifying the differences in income, employment, education, health and crime levels between Maori and non-Maori. Taking income we find that:

* About 20 percent of Maori are in the bottom income quintile (roughly, below the poverty line) compared to 14 percent of the population being of Maori descent.

* Thus the Maori poverty rate is over 50 percent more than the non-Maori. However

* About 80 percent of the poor are not Maori, and

* The poverty rate for Pacific Islanders is higher than for Maori.

* Moreover, the gap between Maori and non-Maori has been slowly closing in the post-war era (although the general policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s setback the trend). Additionally

* Part of the effect is the differences in the age distributions, since the young are more likely to be poor than the old, and the Maori are a younger population.

* Another cross-cutting factor may be social position . As ex-Police Commissioner Peter Doone concluded ‘simply being Maori does not lead to a life of crime, but Maori are more likely to grow up in an environment plagued with social problems.’ So do many non-Maori, and they suffer the same cycle of deprivation.

* There appears to be a ‘dilution’ effect. The Maori who say they are also part-European, appear to better off on average than the Maori who give no additional ethnicity. (A major difficulty is different definitions of Maoriness. Some of (part) Maori descent will call themselves ethnically ‘Maori’, ‘part-Maori’ or ‘non-Maori’ in different situations. Official recording can be even more erratic.

There are similar salient facts for other social dimensions. They warn just how complicated the technicalities of a coherent ‘closing the gaps’ policy framework can be. But there is no such framework. Rather the policy seems to be a throwing together of some good – and not so good – ideas without much attention to how particularly well targeted they will be, or whether they are even effective.

For instance, I have to be convinced how reserving places for Maori on hospital boards will improve Maori health. I do understand how Maori based providers of public health (e.g. the anti-smoking program, Ahua Kore) can be effective, since cultural responses can be critical here. But most hospital provision is not so culturally dependent. (The proposal may be actually about recognizing the rights of minorities to be properly represented in decision-making, but that is a political matter – rangatiratanga – not a matter of reducing social inequality).

Alas, flinging together a variety of part-thought through policies, under a slogan is becoming too common. Recall 1999’s ‘knowledge society’. Great notion. But every thoughtful comment begins with ‘of course I agree, but I don’t know what it means’ (other than as an incoherent policy package).

The ‘knowledge economy’ slogan has not generated any political backlash. But because ‘closing the gaps’, is about social relations, even the most socially sensitive ask ‘what is going on?’Raising average Maori incomes could increase the incomes of rich Maori, while reducing incomes of poor Maori (as well as those of the poor non-Maori). There being no policy framework, they get no useful answer. As a result those who explore these questions, like economists Simon Chapple and John Gould, get misrepresented.

Relevant robust research gets ignored. In separate studies, John Gibson, Sholeh Maani, Liliana and Rainer Winkleman, and Chapple have all found that the (private) rate of return to education of the average Maori is higher than the return to the Pakeha. This (probably) occurs because the average Maori, being poorer, cannot afford to invest in education as much as the average Pakeha. But the policy conclusion is not to fling money at the Maori – rich and poor – but to recognize that our education system still discriminates against the poor – white, brown, yellow, black, and every hue between. Addressing this discrimination benefits the Maori (and Pacific Islanders) more, because they are on average poorer.

It would be to miss the point of this column to suggest that this research should add another item to a disjointed policy package subsumed under a slogan. What is needed a coherent policy framework, rigorously developed out of the available research.