Child Poverty

<>Listener:  8 February, 2014.


Keywords: Distributional Economics; Social Policy;


I hope Brian Easton (Economy, January 25) is right that child poverty is at last accepted by the conventional wisdom. He made an early contribution to the debate.


However, I fundamentally disagree with him that there has been a lack of quality research. Economists (with a small significant exceptions) may have shown little interest, but contrary to what he argues, social scientists – across a range of disciplines and in both government and universities – have over a number of years clearly identified both causes and solutions.


The fundamental issue is not the lack of sound, research-based knowledge but government neglect and denial of that evidence, both in its decision-making and in the work of advisory groups such as the Welfare Working Group. Policy is about choices and this Government has chosen not to act effectively to reduce child poverty.


Translating knowledge into policy requires testing assumptions and prejudices against the available knowledge, something the minister, the Government and its advisers have consistently failed to do. It is a failure of policy, not of social science. Meanwhile, children are the victims while the interests of the affluent are prioritised. We can and must do better – we have the knowledge to do so.


Mike O’Brien

Management committee, Child Poverty Action Group; associate professor, School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work, University of Auckland


I replied to Mike as follows:


Dear Mike,


The Listener passes onto me letters and I reply to the more interesting ones personally. I should explain I have no influence on their choice of published letters.


You state you ‘fundamentally disagree with him [me] that there has been a lack of quality research’. I am not sure I said that. I did say

“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.”


I guess we may be disputing ‘some’ in my view with the ‘a lack’ in yours. (Perhaps you are disputing my remarks about our knowledge of long term effects, I can think of one or two studies, but perhaps I have overlooked others; I agree we do not lack conjectures about the long term effects.)


Now I’d go a step further. Much (perhaps most) of the research you refer to shows correlation not causation. Moreover it shows correlates with the consequences of poverty, not the cause of poverty. (see the final sentence in the quoted paragraph). That means that most of the policy proposals do not address the fundamental problem which makes it very easy to fob them off. (Politicians love those sort policies, of course. They are cheap.)


Incidentally, what we need is a decent – hard headed – survey of poverty research. I’ve just finished one on the income distribution. It was a bloody hard slog, set back my main research program a couple  of months and only touches on poverty. It should be out in the NZJS this month.


Finally, might I say I regret that your letter ignores the main message of the column; that we have known about the child poverty problem for at least 40 years and still are not doing much. It behoves us (me included) to ask why we have been so damned ineffectual rather than just hoping next week we will be.


Kindest regards,