Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sigh - you know, I am going to say "I told you so"

Sorry, long post.

Although I've defended Labour's "Best Start" announcement under The Veteran's post below, I'm not happy with it either.  I'll try and explain why.

First, what's good about it.

1. It's a well, duh.  If there's a problem with children being raised in poverty, seeing to it that people with children get more money isn't exactly counter-intuitive.

2. It's a combo shot in that it's also an education policy, and a far more useful one than the expensive idiocy announced by Key last week.

The education thing is important, so I'm going to elaborate on it a bit.  Education policy is a problem for National, and not just because they can't think past their desire to break the teacher unions.  The big reason it's a problem for them is that the cause of this "long tail" of underachievement they love banging on about is poverty. Nats like to pretend that studies have shown family income and home environment  to be trivial influences on educational outcomes, and that the most important factor is teacher quality.  I don't know how journalists keep from laughing in Key and Parata's faces when they peddle that one, because it's a barefaced lie.  They know very well that teacher quality is merely the most important in-school factor, and is dwarfed by external factors like wealth or poverty. They know it because no academic qualifications are needed to know it - the very fact that a school's decile is a useful proxy for the academic achievement of its students is a conclusive demonstration.  Certainly the nation's parents don't have any problem identifying school decile as a proxy for educational performance, even if they don't think about what that means.

The reason National MPs lie about poverty's influence on education is that if they were to accept it they'd be obliged to do something about it, which is not what their constituency elects them to do.  Hence we get bizarre education policies from them - the nuttiness of their latest one is well illustrated by Danyl in this post.

Labour and the Greens, on the other hand, are well placed to be able to publicly recognise the problem for what it is and do something about it. Labour's policy of doing something about it by just giving parents some money strikes me as both simpler and less undermining of parents than the Greens' approach of trying to take over the parenting.

So, what's bad about it then?

Well, I don't think it's the lack of targeting, even though that's where Nat supporters are attacking it.  It may not make economic sense to provide financial assistance to parents with a household income upwards of $100,000, but it makes a lot of political sense.  Such is the game, no point in whinging about it.

No, the bad part is the incentive effect - what you subsidise, you get more of.

I've made a prick of myself over at the Standard for years now, in that every time someone posts a hand-wringing "won't someone think of the children" post about child poverty, I comment along similar lines. Goes like this:

1. If the problem is that someone doesn't have enough money, giving them money will (in many cases) address the problem.

2. However, there are downsides to paying people without the means, the ability or even the inclination to raise children, to create children without giving it a moment's thought. It results in increasing numbers of children being raised in sole-parent beneficiary households.

3. Being raised in a sole-parent beneficiary household raises your risk for pretty much every shit indicator, including being 13x more likely to suffer abuse.*

4. Most people are aware this is the case, which means a policy of dishing out more money to parents of children in poverty without some corresponding measures to reduce the likelihood of it increasing the population of children in poverty is high-grade voter repellent.

I think Labour's Best Start policy falls into this trap and is at great risk of repelling voters. Lindsay Mitchell outlines the risks very well in this post, but here are a couple of them that illustrate what I'm on about very well:

The main reason for child poverty is between a fifth and a quarter of babies born every year will be benefit-dependent by the end of the year. Effectively increasing the Sole Parent Support (ex DPB) by $3,000 a year isn't going to discourage that pattern of behaviour. This policy risks growing the number of benefit-dependent children which will achieve the very opposite of what Cunliffe claims to want.

It will undermine the welfare reforms aimed at reducing long-term dependency by making benefits more attractive. Of course there is no guarantee the new work-testing will be retained if the government changes anyway.

TL:DR version: a policy of paying people to have children without also including some means of reducing the incentive effect on careers as sole parent beneficiaries lets political opponents portray you as running a waster breeding programme.  Best Start has this flaw.

* The 13x figure applied to being raised on a benefit, not necessarily by a sole parent, but you get the idea.


The Veteran said...

Milt ... thoughtful post and you have marshaled your arguments well.

Picking up on my earlier theme that Cunliffe's announcement reflects a policy based on inputs rather than outcomes and perhaps a better characterisation might be along the lines of 'never mind the quality, feel the width'.

Clearly though we both agree on the bottom line.

It's a dud.

Psycho Milt said...

I don't think it's a dud, it's just missing an essential piece whose absence leaves it open to attack. If he were to plug that gap (eg, commit to retaining and extending Bennett's crackdown on adding children while on a benefit), Key would be in big trouble.

Watcher said...

Nah! I get sick of political meddling in education.
Remember when some twit thought that computers were going to be fed by punch tape forever and changed to maths teaching to accommodate,. Result was some children had times table to fall back on and most who came in during the change were totally confused
End result. Common sense prevailed and they went back to times table.
Reminds me of those dumb corporate managers who are always introducing some supposed new better management tool And there have been heaps over the years.
Kinda like political change in eduction..

Psycho Milt said...

Further to my 3:02 comment: Key's abrupt u-turn on paid parental leave suggests he doesn't think this policy is a dud either. If anything, subjecting himself to the embarrassment of an apparent overnight realisation that PPL isn't a ridiculous waste of taxpayers' money to be prevented at all costs, suggests he regards it as a rather dangerous threat.

The Realist said...

This idea about poverty causing poor academic performance amuses me. I see it rather as genetics: the feckless generally produce feckless copies of themselves.

Paranormal said...

PM - perhaps you should differentiate between what is good for the country and what is 'good politics'. Whilst PPL may or may not be good for the country, giving people more of their own money is clearly good politics (i.e. winning the popularity contest to retain/win the treasury benches).

Psycho Milt said...

I see it rather as genetics: the feckless generally produce feckless copies of themselves.

There'll be an element of that, sure. There's no way to eradicate educational failure completely, regardless of what measures you take against poverty, because the lazy, malicious and stupid will always find ways to fuck things up for themselves and produce more like themselves. But as the child of working-class parents, I don't accept the idea that the poor are by definition congenitally stupid.

PM - perhaps you should differentiate between what is good for the country and what is 'good politics'.

I do, and I can see that Cunliffe putting a high cutoff income on Best Start and Key having a road-to-Damascus conversion about PPL are both about good politics decided without reference to what's good for the country (which isn't the same thing as saying I think either one of those things is necessarily bad for the country). But politicians do what they do, and as long as we have them they'll keep doing it.

Barnsley Bill said...

PM, over the last year I have submerged myself in the beneficiary classes of the Far North. The worst suburbs (in all stat ranges that matter)of Whangarei, Kaikohe, Moerewa and surrounding third world rural ghettos.
I now feel competent to pass comment on this from a position of first hand witness and experience.
It will not matter if you give every single multi-child beneficiary family an extra 500 per week per kid. We are fucking doomed as a nation. This money will not improve the lives of the children that are in dire need of help. Not one extra doctors visit, healthy basket of food or bar of soap will be bought. It will go the way that the billions we already shit down our legs go. Namely on people that live with an outlook that is incapable of seeing past the day in front of them.
I would rather see WINZ (with the help of all NGO and other dogooder groups work to identify the worst 10,000 families and take over the day to day existence of these people entirely. Put all the money we have into that project and I will vote for David Cunliffe.
This policy is just another massive sweep through the voting classes venal greediness. A policy cooked up by the same cunts who worked under Clark when they bribed their way back with WFF and free student loans. Not one of them would have any first hand experience of poverty, the people living like animals and the children they are stunting.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...


Jolly good to hear from you and I'm so glad Kawakawa didn't get a mention.

Psycho Milt said...

BB: I bow to your superior knowledge of the wasters of the far North. I agree, for a proportion of the bottom 20% there's no way slinging a bit more money their way is going to achieve anything in terms of reducing child poverty. Only some intensive and expensive nanny-stating would get anywhere, but oddly enough these bottom-dwellers seem to be the only ones the left want to keep Nanny away from.

Watcher said...

"I see it rather as genetics: the feckless generally produce feckless copies of themselves."

Gee keep up with science..
Nature or nurture was the catch cry but with the gene investigations in recent years it more and more siding with the latter.

Another example is there is no gene for homosexuality regardless of less informed myths around.

Still there remain some that maintain Negros are lesser because they more commonly have G6PD gene deficiency. Today science has proved it was a defence against malaria.

PaulL said...

I think some of your assertions around education bear scrutiny.

Yes, low income is correlated with poor educational achievement. But does that mean it causes poor educational achievement, or that correcting it would improve poor educational achievement.

It is certainly true that some (even many) children who live in "poverty" have good educational achievement. So being poor cannot be the sole explanation. I read something recently that suggested that in fact poverty explains only about 6% of educational attainment in the US, but I can't find the link (I'll keep looking). In the meantime, this link might be interesting:

The proposition is that a complex mix of factors including environment (e.g. poor children are more likely to be exposed to lead in the environment), marriage breakdown, parental values and beliefs regarding education etc are the drivers. Poverty is often a proxy for these, but it's not a perfect proxy, and fixing poverty doesn't necessarily improve the educational attainment.

Relevance? Your proposition seems to be that Labour's policy on poverty will do more for education than National's policy on education will do. That is based on the supposition that slightly reducing poverty will make a difference to educational outcomes.

I think that view overstates the impact of poverty, and I'm more in the camp that says many of the in-home problems are essentially unsolveable in the short-term by the govt. As such, only long-term measures aimed at long-term unemployment and intergenerational welfare will impact on the in-home environment. Conversely, a portion of educational attainment is driven by schools (even the teacher's unions agree with that). That portion is under the government's control, therefore they can make reasonably rapid and direct impact in that area. It makes sense to focus your efforts in the areas you can make a difference.

Psycho Milt said...

Yes, it is a lot more complicated than I made it out to be in the post - otherwise we wouldn't have education departments at universities. I think it's reasonable to assume that people who are at the lower end of the IQ bell curve are likely to stay at the lower end of the income bell curve and have kids at the lower end of the academic achievement bell curve, so a certain level of correlation between low-income neighbourhoods and poor educational outcomes is inevitable. At a more brutal level, wasters are going to be poor and their kids are not going to do well at school. And there'll always be bright or particularly-determined kids from low-income families who do well at school despite poverty.

It is just a correlation (you're right, I shouldn't have written 'cause' there), but it's a very strong one, which makes Ministers of Education who want to pretend it's trivial look stupid. So, what would be a mechanism for how poverty would 'cause' educational underachievement? The post you link to suggests it's because poverty tends to be a proxy for lower class, and there are various cultural factors that militate against educational achievement for lower-class kids. I think that's true, but for all that readers of this blog hate Metiria Turei, we really should also consider the following factors:
1. Kids coming to school hungry.
2. Kids getting sick from damp, overcrowded housing.
3. Medical conditions going undiagnosed (glue ear, shortsightedness, foetal alcohol syndrome).

Those things will obviously have an effect on educational achievement and they are very much things it's within the government's power to do something about. People tend to bitch and moan that giving these families money won't help because they'll just waste it, and to some extent that's justified (eg, if a kid's going to school hungry, it's suffering neglect, not poverty), but the fact is that in some, maybe even a lot of cases, the money will mitigate those factors listed above and those kids will do better.

So I don't think the tail can be wiped out, but a government that's willing to put money into it can reduce it. Given the strength of the correlation, it seems to me to make way more sense to start there, rather than with teacher quality, which has a much smaller correlation, will also be expensive, and maybe quite difficult (ie, if our teachers were shit we could make improvements quite quickly, but our teachers are actually already pretty good).

PaulL said...

Except that the policy in question appears to be trying to deal with the evidence that otherwise similar schools can be delivering quite different results. The research suggests that the quality of the principals and some of the teachers is a big contributor.

Rather than the traditional right wing knee jerk of "all teachers are stupid, lets shoot them all and home school", the policy seems to have taken a stab at the concept that maybe the skills can be taught, and therefore it makes sense to ask those schools (and therefore those principals and teachers) that are succeeding to share their knowledge.

I really don't see what there is to dislike about that policy, other than the argument of opportunity cost - i.e. if we didn't do that we could do something even better. My problem is that I don't see that we have only one opportunity for policy here (the education policy doesn't prevent also doing something about poverty), and the reality is that we have the govt we have - this is the policy they've chosen. The question is really whether it's a good one or not, because there isn't an opportunity to have a completely different policy instead.

Psycho Milt said...

If the government had come up with this policy after talking to practicing and academic experts, and finding that the "inspirational CEO" approach was something that significant numbers of them felt would make a real difference, I'd be a bit dubious about it but not in any position to argue with the experts. But, as with national standards and charter schools, they came up with this without reference to anyone either working in the field or with academic expertise in it. That may play well to the element of their constituency that refers to teachers as "unionised drones," but it just dismays me.

On top of that, I don't believe charismatic leadership can be taught - the point about great leaders is that they're unusual, it's not something that just rubs on other people by association. I've hung out with some real leaders in my field, but that doesn't seem to have helped me in anything other than an aspirational sense. Mostly it just depressingly illustrates my shortcomings.

But the real problem is that, even if it's a worthwhile policy (and some people in the field seem to think it is), it deliberately ignores the elephant in the room, which is that ridiculously strong correlation between educational 'performance' of a school and the decile/social class/status/call-it-what-you-like of the intake.