Invisible Children

The Prime Minister told the UN that she aimed for New Zealand ‘to be the best place in the world to be a child’. Once we said it was.

 I do not know whether we were once the best country in the world for children. Certainly when I grew up in the 1950s we thought we were – even if there were no systematic comparisons. We returned from our OE in 1970 with that belief.

Shortly after, I discovered that measured poverty in the country was dominated by children and their parents. This was a revolutionary finding at the time and it took only four decades for it to become the conventional wisdom. Even today, you will find people who focus their poverty discussions on beneficiaries, ethnic minorities, single-parent households, and those in rental accommodation. The research evidence points to the most common household in poverty is a Pakeha couple with children living in their own house (with a mortgage) and being dependent upon wages That is because the group is the largest, so even if its poverty rate is lower than average, there are more poor.

Why do children ‘cause’ poverty? The answer is both easy and subtle.  A market economy makes no provision for the maintenance and caring of children, despite its being central for the progress of society; without it there would be no nation in the long run. Measured as an economic activity, child rearing is the single largest industry in the economy (about a quarter of enhanced GDP in the 1970s).

Why are we so uninterested in the economics of child rearing? Partly because it is hard to think about nonmarket activities, but also because so much of it is unpaid mothers’ work and we ignore them (except on the first Sunday of May). Children are almost invisible in economic analysis.

We have no systematic measures of any deterioration in the quality of the child-rearing industry although there are plenty of anecdotes. The current Prime Minister is the first to be born after 1970 and I am guessing that her feeling is that there has been a deterioration. She seems to have had a good childhood, but she may well have been surrounded by many struggling kids, while her policeman father would have told horrific stories, as may well her mother who worked in a school. .

Certainly there have been financial pressures on the family – especially after the budget cuts of 1991 – which have added to the stress of child-rearing, there seem to be greater housing difficulties while labour market conditions have changed dramatically including higher unemployment, the rise of the working mother and increasing fragility of employment in the part-time part-season economy of insecure, intermittent, low-paid work. .

We know, too, that the nature of the family has become more fluid and dynamic. An economist knows little about the details, while it would appear that sociologists, the traditional specialists in the social science community, have lost interest. At least that is the interpretation from a recently published book intended for first-year university sociology students. The Land of Milk and Honey covers many topics including class, ethnicity, gender and social inequality, It has a handful of glancing references to children – all in the context of poverty (some are wrong) – and its one index reference to family is ‘family violence’. Children seem invisible.

As for social statistics, the extent to which the survey on poverty being undertaken by Statistics New Zealand engages with children will be revealing. Because they are the largest group of the poor, they need to be over-sampled making  sure we have useful results by age and gender. Will the survey’s questions cover the needs of children including parental time? (The recent time-use surveys, which I desperately needed for my child-oriented research in the 1970s, also have children near invisible.)

Other disciplines have done better. Pediatricians, for instance, have been staunch in discussions on child poverty. However there is a danger of medicalising children – just as there is a danger of reducing child-rearing to an economic problem only.

I favour reducing financial stress on families, improving the quality of their housing, improving access to healthcare and upgrading the quality of poorly performing schools..But while all this is necessary to attain the Prime Minister’s goal, it will not be enough; what else has to be done is outside an economist’s competencies.

We have to move away from a pathology approach in our social policy to a more holistic one. Too often we look at a small part of the world with which we are struggling and make huge generalisations while ignoring the rest. For instance, it is true that Maori make up an over-proportion of our prison population – which we should be addressing – but it is also true that the vast majority of Maori are not in prison.

The pathology approach is evident in Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children. It was a disgrace that it was once called ‘Ministry for Vulnerable Children’ labelling any children it dealt with for life. But the rename does not resolve the central problem that its prime interest is about dealing with children in great need. Its advice to its Minister, Tracey Martin, and the Prime Minister will be preoccupied with its struggle with under-funding and a lack of skilled and experienced staff. Unless there is a clear ministerial direction and appropriate funding it will not be focusing on the needs and opportunities of all families – of making New Zealand the best country in the world for children.

The danger is that we will repeat the errors of past, say by setting up a task force of the politically correct, platitudinous and pompous, stacked with those who know the answers without knowing the questions, with those with axes to grind which have nothing to do with the actual topic, with a focus on pathology rather than a holistic approach. It would be given a ridiculous deadline to do a final report, and it would be underfunded so that it cannot commission independent high quality research – instead asking those who reflect the taskforce’s composition to do quickies. Its implicit answer would be that our children are in trouble because this is the way we run our country.

It would be great if the Prime Minister couples her vision with leadership, Yet she knows that not a single child will vote for her in 2020. Perhaps the single most important reason that children are treated badly in public policy is that they cannot vote. Were they to, we would find all political parties taking a real interest in this otherwise invisible and struggling part of our nation.