Sloppy analysis is dividing us into the deserving and undeserving


Pundit: 3 November, 2014.


Keywords: Distributional Economics; Social Policy;


Being no expert on domestic violence, I looked at the Glenn inquiry’s The People’s Report to see what it had to say about causes. I had expected a summary of the research literature but there was none. All the report did was tell of people’s (often moving) experiences and what they thought should be done. It was anecdote rather than analysis.


Ultimately the report’s recommendations were ambulances revving up at the bottom of the cliff to deal with failures; there was no attention to why people were falling off at the top or whether we could reduce the numbers. Too often that is the context of our policy discussions in areas I know a little about. Like poverty.


Sure, we measure the number of the bodies falling down the cliff, and sure, the ambulances at the bottom jostle to pick up the wounded. But there is surprisingly little discussion on the causes of poverty – what is happening at the top of the cliff. That is true even in the report on child poverty to the Children’s Commissioner by the (so-called) Expert Group (I question not their skills in the ambulance department) and by Jonathon Boston and Simon Chapple in Child Poverty in New Zealand.


You know the answer as to why people are falling off into poverty; they havn’t got enough income, although you may be a little more pressed to explain why they have not. But if income deficiency is the primary cause of poverty is it not logical to increase the income of the poor? That is not the way we are tackling poverty though.


Instead the proposed solutions are strange. Boston and Chapple seem to think we can solve the problem by getting mothers out to work. Had they been more analytic they would have noticed that already there are families with working mothers who are in poverty. Indeed they would have realised that there is a major deficiency in the way we measure poverty because we do not deduct childcare costs from the income of working families. That means we underestimate the numbers of working families paying for childcare which are in poverty. Ooops.


The government seems to have taken to their approach. It claims it is going to target families which are not ‘dependent on the state’ (a confusing – even Orwellian – phrase). That means that it will leave on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff those who are unable to work in the paid labour force. Meanwhile those who can move off the social security benefit will not be nearly as well off as it seems, since they will have childcare costs – explicitly, but also, as every parent in the paid labour force knows, there are other private costs and stresses that go with them.


The strategy is a splendid way to be seen to be doing something about poverty without spending too much money. It will probably not have much effect either but by the time that becomes obvious to everyone, all those implementing it – the politicians, the experts, the policy advisers, the ambulance drivers – will have retired and be unaccountable for their failures.


There is an insidious side to the approach. It splits families into two categories, of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Those deemed deserving – those not ‘dependent’ on the state – will get support and the undeserving rest will lie there on the rocks, broken and bleeding.


This distinction was rejected by the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security , which said ‘need and degree of need’ was the primary test for support. From the 1990s the principle was eroded – in the benefit cuts of 1991, in the introduction of the Child Tax Credit in 1995 and in the Working for Families package of 2005. (So both Labour and National made the distinction.)


Now you may have a strong view about the wickedness (or otherwise) of parents on the benefit. You might even be keen to push them over the cliff. But think about this. There may, or may not, be undeserving parents, but what about their children? Are the children of undeserving parents also undeserving – suffering a kind of original sin? Isn’t the government’s approach condemning them to poverty in childhood – inferior health, inferior education and greater use of the justice facilities and social services? Wont that lead to a deprived adulthood and – perish the thought – to their children also suffering deprivation? Are we not loading the sins of the mother (such as they are) unto the third generation?


We are already doing this. It is a couple of decades since the Richardson-Shipley income cuts on the poor. It turns out that just about all the increase in inequality that happened then impacted on children and their parents; very few other adults seem to have been affected. The children penalised then are now grown-up adults with poor health and work records and over-represented in today’s justice and health systems. It is now the turn of many of their children to suffer poverty too.


That cycle will continue until we address poverty by giving children and their parents adequate support based on need and the degree of need. Sure there are other things that should be done, but a basic adequate income is the most important – the strongest – fence at the top of the cliff.


The future looks promising for New Zealand ambulance drivers.