Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Measuring success

One of the constants of New Zealand policy debate is the local right's uncritical adoption of the US as the model to pursue. According to them, the key to wealth is lower taxes and the elimination of social services. However, such policies come at a cost: according to a recent report from UNICEF, the US has the worst child-poverty rate of any developed nation, second only to Mexico. Who has the best? Predictably,

[t]op of the table are Denmark and Finland, where child poverty levels are less than 3%, while Norway and Sweden follow close behind.

And the reason is pretty clear:

"Higher government spending on family and social benefits is very clearly associated with a lower level of child poverty," said Mr O'Brien.

He said market forces could not on their own lift children out of poverty and urged direct intervention through greater government spending.

By comparison, New Zealand ranks as fourth-worst, something which can be laid directly at the foot of our obsession with market forces in the 80's and 90's. And since the report's data was gathered, the government has massively increased social spending through the Working for Families programme, which is expected to reduce child poverty by two-thirds within a decade.

The right will no doubt point out that this is a comparison of relative, rather than absolute poverty. But while there is no question that the average poor child in the US is better off than one in Mexico, the issue cannot be dismissed as easily as that. The US, like other western nations, is a nominal meritocracy, where people can rise (or fall) according to their talents. But child poverty undermines this, by preventing some from accessing the opportunity meritocracy requires to function. If society is seen as a race, then the children of the poor are handicapped even before it begins, through no fault of their own. Strong measures to eliminate child poverty would therefore seem justified on meritocratic grounds alone.


Not just working for families - there's the state housing rent stuff too which made a very major difference.

Posted by Jordan : 3/02/2005 01:51:00 PM

In general I agree that the US is almost the last country we should be attempting to emulate, but I don't think this statistic is quite as damning as it first appears. The definition of "poverty" used is "living in a family that is earning less than 50% of the median income". So although the US median income is way below the mean income (due to that massive skew on their wealth/income curve), it's still a crapload higher than say, the _mexican_ median income. I think this statistic measures two things really - what percentage of your population earns half the median income or less, and how many more kids they have relative to everyone else. What it doesn't measure is the relative level of hardship experienced by families living on less than half the median income.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/02/2005 04:07:00 PM

You guys ought to have a look at the Child Poverty Action group website - if you really want to know what's going on - currently the government is whitewashing the reality on this one - there really is poverty in NZ - 155,000 kids are really poor! and it isn't only National that got us here - have a look at the report called Cut Price Kids: Does the `Working for Families' Budget work for children? (2004). - You know what the Working for families budget item isn't going to help the poor? - The real issue you want to talk about is tax - why are we so heavily taxed? why is there no tax relief for families? why is GST being charged on food?

Posted by Anonymous : 3/02/2005 05:25:00 PM

Seth: see my comments about it being a relative poverty measure above. If the US - or any western country - wants to pretend to be a meritocracy, they need to seriously work on eliminating child poverty. Otherwise, they're simply creating a peasantry with hereditary disadvantages.

I'd also add that relative poverty has a significant effect on human happiness, and that provides another reason to moderate it - at least for governments that care about the psychological wellbeing of their citizens.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/02/2005 08:27:00 PM

Meritocracy is not ruined by poverty it is ruined by the parental system. If you want a meritocracy you want forced adoptions of children by the state to communes.

A halfway house would be 100% death duties and very high taxes on gifts.

Fundimentally your parents will give you better connections, better food, better habits, better genes (in this context) and quite likely your first job etc if they themselves start off from a better situation.
Particularly if you are in a non caucasian of course.

To compare the two directly if you grew up in a poor family that had won lotto (lets say half a million) you would probably have very little chance relative to growing up in a upper class family that had had a bad year or two in their business.

Posted by Genius : 3/03/2005 08:04:00 PM

Interestingly, a report the other day in Ha'aretz detailed how Israel's children are even worse off than Mexico's! A touch over 30% were living in poverty.

Posted by Asher : 3/04/2005 05:21:00 PM

Genius: poverty, parents, it's two sides of the same coin. The problem is really that equality of opportunity depends on equality of outcome - and that those with better outcomes can use them to leverage better opportunities for their kids. But the policy solution doesn't have to be as monstrous as forcibly abducting people's children (or abandoning meritocratic ideals alltogether) - it simply requires an ongoing effort to help those who would otherwise be left behind, and to smooth inequalities of outcome (by raising the bottom and taxing the top) to reduce the advantages that can be passed on.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/04/2005 10:51:00 PM

That helps but it doesn't sove the problem. Unfortunatly a fundimental part of incentive is that you can help your children to have a better life posibly the most important part of the incentive component of meritocracy. So for there to be an incentive or a meritocracy there must be inequality and that inequality effects the fairness of the meritocracy.

Also we must consider "what is merit?" who has merit? do we mean an effortocracy or a inteligenceocracy or a what?

Posted by Genius : 3/06/2005 11:12:00 AM

poverty is relative - only a truly communist, completely redistributionist state would eliminate poverty. It is a completely socialist moonbat measure.
The 300 people living at the caravan park in Mangere and a small number of others are living in poverty in New Zealand. If you are arguing that substantial sections of Mangere, Otara, Glen Innes, Porirua are poverty stricken then you clearly completely unworldly and have not seen real poverty. parents with young kids have low incomes, they work hard and build wealth. simple facts of life. there are not 155,000 children living in poverty in new zealand.

Posted by sagenz : 3/07/2005 02:01:00 AM