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Dr Greg Clydesdale

Focus on the Parents

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I want Jacinda Ardern to succeed fighting poverty, but I suspect that, like her predecessors, she will fail.  Do you remember Helen Clark’s ‘closing the gaps’ program?  It failed and the gap actually got bigger.  Maybe you can remember ‘Working for Families’.  On its release, a Labour party spokesman stated:

Working for Families is increasing the incomes of hundreds of thousands of New Zealand’s working and beneficiary families, and lifting tens of thousands of children out of poverty…

But once again, the policy failed to meet expectations.  If it had succeeded, Jacinda Ardern would not have to target poverty today. 

Why did Helen Clark and her predecessors fail so badly?  I suggest that the reason the left wing fail to solve poverty is because they never try to solve it.  Instead, they focus on inequality. 

The left-wing use ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’ as if they are equivalents, but they are very different.  Poverty is an absence of necessities, whereas inequality is a comparative statement of income and wealth. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in our measure of poverty.  Governments measure income, not in terms of deprivation, but how someone’s income compares with another.  That is, if a person earns 50-60% of the median income in that country, they are considered below the poverty line. To her credit, Ardern is trying to expand measures, but it is insufficient.

These differences have huge implications for policy.  To solve inequality, you simply need to take money from those who have it and re-distribute it to those who have less.  That is what ‘Working for Families’ did.  The result is a more equal distribution of income, however it doesn’t solve the underlying causes of poverty, so it continues into the next generation. 

We all know the saying ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for the day.  Teach him to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.’  Helen Clarke was a fish-giver, but to solve poverty you need to teach people to fish.

If people need to be taught to fish, who are the main teachers?  Our principle teachers in life are our parents, that is why so many right-wing people say ‘I blame the parents’.

I want to remove the word ‘blame’ from that sentence and suggest that Jacinda listen to the right wing on this and consider the role of parents, not in a critical way, but as a pathway to solve inter-generational poverty, particularly among Maori and Pacific Islanders.

But this leads us to another failing of the prevailing policies.  They have refused to link culture to poverty. They have lived in this ideological world where all cultures contribute equally to economic growth.  The reality is, cultures vary significantly in their ability to produce material wealth. 

Material poverty is the absence of material wealth, and if we are going to solve poverty, we must ensure that all New Zealanders have the ability to create material wealth.  We need to teach them to fish, not redistribute fish.

The academic discipline we would expect to address this issue is sociology, but they have actually been the most vigorous opponents of this line of work.  Sociology Princeton Professor Douglas Massey criticised his own discipline for its stance noting that “For decades, it was not possible to use culture and poverty in the same sentence in polite sociological company”.

Coming from a business background, I was astounded by the view of sociologists.  In business, we teach our students to examine all possibilities when confronted with a problem.  Sociologists were explicitly stating that they would not even consider this option and consequently, may have over-looked the best opportunity to solve ethnic poverty – Do they really want to help these people or are they more interested in ideology?

Sociologists did not want to study the link between culture and poverty because this would be seen as “blaming the victim”.  Consequently, when research was conducted on ethnic poverty, they focused on social-structural factors. In New Zealand that meant focusing on discrimination and New Zealand institutions.  Consider this comment from a paper prepared for the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs:

rather than adopting a deficit conception of Pasifika peoples, their communities, cultures and/or languages – as has been characteristic of much public policy towards Pasifika peoples in the past – we need to examine the adequacy of the institutional provision of key services, such as education, and the degree to which such institutional provision supports the aspirations and trajectories of Pasifika peoples in New Zealand (May, 2009).

This was the reverse of John F. Kennedy’s famous words:

‘My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. 

This was:

‘think not what you can do for your country, ask what the country should be doing for you.’

With ideology limiting research, poverty was seen to be the cause of poor childhood development outcomes.  This lead to the logical conclusion that to break the poverty cycle we must first re-distribute money.  With more money, these groups would then be able to improve the quality of their parenting and their children would obtain the academic outcomes that enabled them to break out of poverty.

The problem is, giving people more money does not guarantee they will improve their parental skills.  It does not mean they are good at budgeting and they will buy more educational toys. 

In recent years, a group of researchers are now saying what we have known all along.  Focus on parental behaviours!  For example, Guang and Harris (2000) argue that it is not sufficient to say that poverty affects children’s academic achievement.  This explanation is too vague and does not reveal the causal pathways by which poverty works. 

Research by a number of developmental psychologists backs up Guang and Harris.  They argue that targeting children’s cognitive environments and parenting behaviors are the most effective and less expensive policy intervention. 

The irony is, anthropologists have always known that parental behaviour is strongly shaped by culture.  As leading anthropologists Harkness and Super (2002:253) note “Parenting is culturally constructed”.

Understanding Maori and Pacific poverty.

If Jacinda wants to solve Maori and Pacific poverty, she needs to avoid the old left-wing ideology and gain a deeper understanding of the problem.

First, Maori are not poor because of Pakeha.  They were already poor.  When early European explorers arrived, they regularly commented on the impoverished state that Maori lived in.  However, it was no one’s fault.  Their poverty was a consequence of being isolated at the bottom of the world, outside the trade and information flows that enriched other cultures.  Maori lived on the planet’s most isolated country.  This meant that they had no chance of hearing the technological and scientific advances that spread across the Eurasian continent.  Nor did they possess the capabilities to acquire that knowledge.  They had no exposure to writing or advanced mathematics.

The consequence of this isolation was that Maori never had the chance to develop capabilities in production, science and technology, and this would have a serious impact on their economic growth and quality of life.

It is impossible to under-state the extent to which this isolation impacted on Maori development, and the more that you come to terms with that impact, you begin to realise that this is the principal cause of poor Maori development.  No one is to blame.

The government at the end of the nineteenth century knew that this was a process of catch-up.  In 1891, Sir Robert Stout noted that “The natives cannot equal the Europeans in buying, or selling, or in other things.  They have not gone through the long process of evolution which the white race has gone through”.  Similarly, James Carroll noted that “no attempt has been made to educate them in acquiring industrial knowledge or… industrial pursuits”. 

Nor did this escape the observation of Maori.  In 1907, the government established the Stout-Ngata Commission which was co-led by Sir Apirana Ngata, arguably Maori’s greatest leader (and the man on our $50 note).  The report noted that…

If the Maori is to become an industrious citizen steps will have to be taken to provide for his education different from the steps that have been taken in the past.  He may in our opinion become an efficient settler- just as efficient as the European settler.  But it cannot be expected that he can equal a race that has been farming for thousands of years, whilst his race has only been engaged in what may be termed hunting and in the culture of small garden patches. 

The Commission noted the process of transition in productive technologies saying:

They have lost the habits of industry of their ancestors, and they have not acquired the habits of the European in this respect … The spectacle is presented to us of a people starving in the midst of plenty. 

Recognising the difficulties in acquiring modern production capabilities, the Stout-Ngata Commission recommended that the government establish training programs for young Maori.

Apirana Ngata continued this push when he was Native Minister in the 1928 government.  The programmes he sponsored were responsible for a significant leap in the quality of Maori capabilities. 

However, in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a move away from developing capabilities to blaming Pakeha.  There is no doubt that Maori have experienced injustice particularly with land-loss, so this and discrimination became the principle explanation of poverty.  Apirana Ngata’s desire to upgrade capabilities was replaced by a desire to maintain traditional culture and blaming Pakeha.  The biggest opportunity to help young Maori was lost. 

In a knowledge economy, the ability to learn is of great importance.  If we are going to expand the options and success of Maori, we must develop their capabilities and their ability to learn new capabilities.  

Success in the market economy requires having high level capabilities that can be sold on the labour market.  Maori and Pacific Islanders perform poorly at school which means they are less likely to have those capabilities.  This poor performance is already apparent at the beginning of schooling which means the problem is not the teachers.  The focus must go on parental practice.

If Jacinda is to succeed, she must stop the focus on replacing parent’s responsibilities with government, and focus on improving parental skills.  Parents are our most important teachers, and government action can never replace this.

In my forthcoming book on ethnic poverty, I identify specific areas where parental programs can make a big difference.  They include the need to provide structure, conflict resolution methods, academic socialisation, educational discipline, and a culture of technological appreciation and aptitude. 

In the first five years of a child’s life, parents need to focus on their child’s cognitive skills.  In a knowledge economy, cognitive skills are of prime importance, however Maori and Pacific parenting has traditionally focused on motor skills.

Finally, there is a need for self-control.  As the Dunedin studies show, people who exhibited poor self-control in their childhood experienced a number of problems in their thirties.  They were more likely to experience problems such as low income, poor saving habits, credit problems, and social welfare dependence.  They were also more prone to health problems and crime.  Significantly, children with poor self-control were likely to perform poorly in school and the income earned later in life. 

If Jacinda Ardern is to succeed, she has to drop ideology and deal with reality.  She has to carry on Apirana Ngata’s legacy and take capability building to the next level.  If not, in ten years time, another Labour government will come to power with the goal of solving poverty because their predecessors have failed.