Poor Show

Why it has taken so long for child poverty to become part of the conventional wisdom.


Listener: 16th January, 2014


Keywords: Distributional Economics; History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Social Policy;


Corso, the Council of Organisations for Relief Services Overseas, decided in 1979 that it was wrong to ignore poverty in New Zealand while working to relieve it offshore. It made a film describing poor families here. The Government addressed the problem by withdrawing its funding of Corso.


In the course of the uproar, I said on TV that about a quarter of children were in poverty. The interviewer asked indignantly, “Why wasn’t I told?” I explained that the estimate was based on the 1973/74 Household Survey, which gave us the income distribution together with a poverty line set by the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security.


Forty years after the initial finding, people remain surprised at the level of poverty, which has persisted near this earlier estimate, and indignant they were not told. One day someone will write up the slow but steady development of our research and understandings about poverty over the years and the various feeble policy attempts to address it.


However, this column is about the meta-issue: why has it taken so long for the research finding – and by implication many others – to become part of the conventional wisdom?

I am assuming child poverty is at last accepted by the conventional wisdom, but perhaps this is another flare-up of public recognition that will die away when the affluent turn to what really bothers them: tax cuts for the rich.


The current concern was precipitated by the Children’s Commissioner, who bravely – perhaps unaware of the fate of Corso – put child poverty high on his agenda. He commissioned an “expert advisory group”, although one may well wonder just how expert it was, for its members hardly appear in the list of research references in the group’s report. The list itself is curious, for with the exception of the report of the 1972 Royal Commission, there are no references to New Zealand poverty research before 2000. It is an Orwellian world that wipes out memory.


The report’s merit is that it has brought to the public’s notice the extent of child poverty and some evidence of the damage it causes. Presumably, it is the eminence of the group, not its expertise, that has given it such weight. More recently the commissioner, with assistance from the JR McKenzie Trust, has publish a Child Poverty Monitor; he will do so for another four years.


Both reports accept the existence of poverty and tell of some of the short-term effects on health, although we know very little about the long-term effects of poverty on health, crime, education and social distress. However, neither analyses why poverty occurs, not in the way that an economist thinks about it or in the way the earlier research investigated.


Why the inadequacy of the economics of both reports? It reflects a wider problem: a lack of leadership in the social sciences. Sure, there are many acknowledged leaders but most preside rather than provide intellectual leadership.


There are some marvellous exceptions – archaeology, demography and epidemiology, for example – but generally, those we acknowledge as leaders of our social sciences are not outstanding researchers and have no capacity to recognise quality. They may be even fearful of it; by surrounding themselves with eminence rather than expertise, their own limitations are never publicly exposed. Imagine the response if it was said some self-appointed experts had not understood the fundamentals.


That may be the way that governments of all colours like it, but it is destructive to the serious debate through which social science progresses and which society needs.


The children identified as in poverty 40 years ago have become adults. Many of their children have experienced poverty and their grandchildren are probably in poverty today. It is not only a question of justice; we underinvested in them, so society as a whole suffers.


Any acknowledgement of a failure to take up the issue would be an admission of failure. The eminent may have no clothes but they are happy to damn those who point to their nakedness – ask Corso.