Sunday, September 17, 2017

Jacinda Ardern will increase poverty because she doesn't understand the drivers

Last year I wrote a paper which explored the link between child poverty and family structure. The strongest correlate with child poverty is single parent families on welfare. Additionally, children born into de facto relationships - which had a much higher likelihood of dissolving than marriages - were much more likely to become poor.

In a Sunday Star Times column Jacinda Ardern attacked my research:

This week I opened the paper to find some astonishing "news" - a lack of marriage is to blame for child poverty.

I've spent the better part of six years reading and researching the issue of child poverty, and what we need to do to resolve this complex problem in New Zealand

And yet here it was, the silver bullet we have all been looking for. Marriage. Getting hitched. Tying the knot. It turns out that we didn't need an Expert Advisory Group on child poverty, or any OECD analysis for that matter - apparently all we really need is a pastor and a party.

At least, that's the world according to Family First, who commissioned a report this week which, they claim, provides "overwhelming and incontrovertible" evidence that when it comes to child poverty, a lack of marriage is our problem, and it's simply become "politically unfashionable" to talk about it.

I'm happy to talk about it; in fact all of Parliament is. We debated the ins and outs of the institution not that long ago - it was called the Marriage Equality debate. Oddly, I don't recall Family First supporting the idea of increasing access to marriage when it came to same-sex couples. But I digress.

The major piece of evidence Family First use to back up their claims? Child poverty has risen significantly since the 1960s, and more people were married back then. I am paraphrasing, but that's the general gist. And yes, those two pieces of information are true. But are they linked? You only have to look at where child poverty figures really jump around to figure that bit out. Back in the mid-1980s, child poverty numbers (after taking into account housing costs) were about half the levels they are now. What happened to cause the spike? De facto relationships and single parenting didn't all of a sudden become "on trend".

What happened was Ruth Richardson's Mother of all Budgets. Government support was slashed, unemployment rates were grim, and child poverty, as you would expect, went up significantly. Equally, you can also see a downward trend in child poverty numbers around the early 2000s when Working for Families was introduced.

So what about the other claims in the report? How about "51 per cent of children in poverty live in single-parent families". Stating the obvious, surely. Single parent equals single income.

So, Family First, here's my view for what it's worth. Families will take many forms. Some children will be raised by one parent, some will be raised by two, possibly with some distance in between, and some will be raised by four. But the other factors Family First was so quick to dismiss - low wages and staggering housing costs - mean we have 305,000 children in poverty. And this is the stuff that needs to change. It's time we faced reality.

I was allowed only 150 words to respond via a letter-to-the-editor, but you can read my full response here.

Because she doesn't understand child - no let's call it 'family' poverty, Ardern is on the brink of making it much worse.

Granted that particular paper was about incomes. But they account for only one aspect of the poverty problem.

When countries redistribute wealth to raise incomes it comes at a cost - joblessness. Peter Whiteford and Willem Adema write:

"...there is an unavoidable trade-off between providing generous assistance to the poor and improving incentives for people to work and provide for themselves. On average across OECD countries, there is a fairly strong correlation between the effectiveness of tax and benefit systems in reducing poverty and the level of family joblessness. The correlation coefficient is 0.63 – implying that every 1 percentage point increase in the level of poverty reduction achieved by the welfare state is associated with an increase in the number of jobless families by 0.63 percentage points. Among the English-speaking countries  the correlation is even stronger (about 0.92), so that Australia and the United Kingdom reduce child poverty very significantly and have very high levels of joblessness among families; while Canada and the United States reduce poverty much less, but have much lower levels of joblessness (although they have much higher poverty among working families with children). That is, in the English-speaking countries the argument made by Adam, Brewer and Shepherd (2006) appears to apply – more generous support to poor families is associated with higher levels of family joblessness."


In a nutshell, for every percentage point family poverty is reduced, joblessness increases.

The possible future Prime Minister will substantially lift benefit incomes for young parents but reduce the incentive to work. Adding $3,120 annually per child aged 2 or under (and that's only one part of her policy) reduces, if not closes, the gap between incomes from work and incomes from benefits. And don't doubt that recipients factor this into a choice between working and staying dependent on the taxpayer.

"I get a good amount of money on the benefit, why bother working?"

Because work has many more benefits than money alone. Most importantly it teaches your children how the real world operates.

The last two decades has seen countries across the western world debating which is the best strategy to get families out of poverty - increasing work participation or redistributing income. National went largely with the former with their welfare reforms. Now there are fewer children benefit-dependent than since the 1980s (though there's a long way to go yet). Ardern though is predominantly choosing the latter. And if she needs the Greens, a softening of the reforms will be inevitable.

While claiming to have researched  child poverty extensively she has ignored the effect that redistribution has on both work participation and relationship status.

NZ Herald's Simon Collins summarized some of the research into the effect of welfare on relationships:

For parents on benefits or low incomes, the tax and benefit system actually created a financial incentive to separate. Economist Patrick Nolan calculated in 2008 that a mother earning $240 a week and an unemployed father would be $132 a week better off apart, even allowing for the extra costs of two households, because of the extra welfare top-ups the mother could get if she lived alone with the children.
Social researchers Paul Callister and David Rea, in a new draft paper, trace the other side of the equation - a worrying minority of mid-life men aged 30 to 44 missing out on both work and marriage. Mid-life men outside the labour force rose from 2 per cent to 11 per cent in the 30 years to 2006, and those living without partners rose in the past 20 years from 19 per cent to 33 per cent. 
Ardern is intent on reducing income poverty (with no guarantee the money will be spent on the children) but will unwittingly or worse, uncaringly, increase another kind of poverty. A poverty of purpose and spirit. These deficits are what drives the problems all New Zealanders want to see alleviated.


Anonymous said...

Lindsay, sorry to say this, but your wasting a good argument on that vapid woman.

"We debated the ins and outs of the institution...."

So the NZ Parliament's 5-minute-wonders get to judge what has worked through all ages since man walked the planet. We should be impressed.


Don W said...

There are those on the left that want to introduce a universal wage for all. In reality that is reducing the retirement age down from 65 to 18.

Anonymous said...

No, no, Jacinda WANTS more bludgers to get more voters.

Jim Rose said...

Nice post. Adern claims expertise in many areas but develops no policies.