Poverty #3 still lacks solid evidence

Jess Berentson-Shaw’s third article on child poverty makes more claims that giving more money, no questions asked, to poor families is the best way to deal with poverty.

Berentson-Shaw is described as ‘a science researcher at the Morgan Foundation’ but there is a lack of scientific backing to her articles. I have asked the Morgan Foundation for details.

The latest article is Bad parenting is not the reason for child poverty

The single most effective action we can take to improve the lives of children in poverty is to give parents money, no questions asked. In two previous articles, I’ve shown that when parents in poverty are given more money, they use it to better the lives of their children.

She hasn’t shown that beyond some vague references. She has provided no scientific backing to her claims.

I suspect that many in New Zealand will express both shock and total disbelief that the evidence could possibly support this conclusion. At the heart of this shock is the common belief that children in poverty suffer because of bad parents, not the lack of money.

In part we believe this myth because our focus on “child” poverty has separated in the public’s mind these children from their families. The children are innocent and need our help therefore we glibly conclude that the parents are “guilty”: guilty of ignorance and abandonment of their parental responsibilities.

She makes alarming generalisations there without any details to back up her claims.

New Zealanders love to perpetuate the image of the “mad, bad, poor parent”, but it is a lazy, inaccurate and dangerous story to tell because it has led us to put our best efforts into the least-efficient solutions.

It could be suggested that Berentson-Shaw is telling a lazy or inaccurate story, unless she can provide credible substantiation.

In reality, stress and limited resources interact with each other to determine children’s well-being.

Take learning to read, for example. A family who can’t afford to buy books for children may also have less time, ability and energy to read to their child. We know that being read to is crucial for later learning, so this problem creates a gulf in skills between the haves and have-nots that no school can hope to bridge.

This example is alarming.

Has Berentson-Shaw done any research into how much no questions asked additional cash will go into buying children books? And whether it will increase the time spent reading to children?

Reading to children and encouraging children to read are important for education.

New Zealand ranks highly in literacy rates but there are still a large minority who don’t have adequate educational outcomes – in 2002 there were 76% of 25–64 year olds attaining at least upper secondary education, meaning 24% didn’t. (Statistics New Zealand).

And this report from 2013 from Stuff: Experts appalled as literacy rates continue to flatline

While the rest of the world’s literacy rates have been improving, New Zealand’s have flatlined for more than a decade, education experts say.

In a report published yesterday, Massey University researchers say schools’ approach to literacy is “fundamentally flawed.

Research showed those pupils achieving the least were unlikely even to finish the reading recovery programme, Prof Tunmer said.

“A significant number of the lowest-performing 6-year-olds are excluded from reading recovery because they are considered unlikely to benefit, or are withdrawn early when they do not meet expected rates of progress.”

Ministry deputy secretary Rowena Phair acknowledged concerns for those with low levels of literacy.

“We have consistently said that it is no longer acceptable to allow up to a fifth of our learners to complete their schooling without the literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed in a modern economy.”

It is claimed that “as many as half of New Zealand’s prisoners are functionally illiterate”.  (Howard League)

Just giving more money to poor families is unlikely to suddenly change interest in literacy in poor families.

My guess is that most poor families manage to read to children and provide them with books – I grew up in a very poor family but went to the library regularly. But those poor families without an ability or interest in reading are unlikely to change on their own just because they are given more money.

Berentson-Shaw concludes:

What the evidence tells us is that children in poverty do poorly not because they have irresponsible parents, but because they live in families under stress. Give them money to release the pressure valve and families and children do a whole lot better. It is not 100 per cent effective of course, but it gets closer than anything else we have tried.

What evidence? Berentson-Shaw may have some but that isn’t apparent.

Again, the generalised claims without substantiation here are alarming from a “science researcher”.

What if the Government has committed to billions of extra spending and “what is left” is largely the same? Cut the cash and look at other ways of dealing with entrenched problems? Or just keep increasing spending and see what is left after that?

First, we need to remove the financial stress then we deal with what is left.

How much will it take to “remove the financial stress”. Most average families experience ongoing financial stress throughout much of the two or three decades of bringing up kids.

Most people probably don’t think they have enough money to live stress free lives.

In 2016, the Morgan Foundation will release the findings of our investigation into families and children in poverty in New Zealand.

I hope their findings are far more evidence and science based than this series of articles by Berentson-Shaw have been.

Give cash to the poor?

If giving cash to poor people, with no questions asked, no strings attached, could be shown to successfully improve the health and education of children, should we do it?

“Unconditional Cash Transfers work better than almost anyone would have expected. They dent the stereotype of poor people as inherently feckless and ignorant”.

This is the conclusion reached by The Economist in a feature on giving cash to the poor. It neatly summarises the evidence regarding what works best to improve the lives of the poor and strikes at the heart of the prejudices we hold about those in poverty.

There’s a claim that the cost of child poverty to New Zealand is something like $8 billion per year. Handing out a few billion dollars to improve the lives and long term outcomes of hundreds of thousands of children shouldn’t our Government seriously consider it?

An American example:

In a “natural experiment” called the “Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth” in western North Carolina, profits from a casino built on an Eastern Cherokee reservation were distributed to some but not all families in the local community (tribe members received about US$4000 per adult per year). Almost overnight, the receipt of the casino profits moved some of these children (who coincidentally had been researched since birth) out of income poverty.

These children and their families underwent a remarkable change. The children became less anxious and depressed, stayed in school longer and committed less crime; parents had better mental health, and had improved parenting behaviours. These improvements were greatest for the poorest families. No such changes were found in those families who did not receive the casino payments.

But that is a small proportion of people in one part of one state.

In Norway in the 1970s an offshore oil field was discovered, bringing a short-lived boost in incomes to certain areas of the country. For those children born into poor households the sharp increase in incomes had a significant impact on their educational achievement.

Again only some people in parts of Norway. Did this merely give some people an advantage over others to improve their situation? Or would it work on a country wide scale?

This is from Stuff of – Giving cash to the poor is the best way to fix poverty.

OPINION: They might not be popular, but cash transfers with no strings attached are the best bet for reducing family poverty, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher at the Morgan Foundation.

It’s frustrating that our politicians prefer to blame parents and champion policies that push poor parents into low-paid work, despite there being clear evidence that does not help children. Their approach sees the kids get dumped into childcare, and unless that childcare is very high quality (in our poorest communities it often isn’t) they may end up worse off.

Like many before us, we asked “what is the single most effective action we can take to improve the lives of families and children in poverty in New Zealand right now?” The answer from the evidence is clear and conclusive: we should give them money, no strings attached, especially when the children are young.

The only time in recent years New Zealand reduced child poverty was when we gave cash to some poor via Working for Families.

The fact is that everyone would be better off if we just gave poor parents the money.

Boost the incomes of the poor with no conditions attached?