Tough-love may be self de­feat­ing


Ac­cord­ing to some pop­ulist politi­cians, de­pri­va­tion is mainly a state of mind, and wel­fare as­sis­tance cor­rodes the mind­set that peo­ple need to pull them­selves out of poverty.

‘‘You take some­body with the wrong mind-set,’’ the US politi­cian Ben Car­son told a ra­dio in­ter­viewer a fort­night ago: ‘‘You can give them ev­ery­thing in the world. They’ll work their way right back down to the bot­tom.’’ Last week, Car­son’s views were be­ing echoed across a num­ber of New Zealand me­dia out­lets.

In fact, as the New York Times pointed out in a re­join­der, the re­search in­di­cates that Car­son may have con­fused cause and ef­fect, and got them around the wrong way. True, de­pri­va­tion can partly be a state of mind – in that, as the Times says, poverty can cause peo­ple to think less clearly, to sleep less well, to con­tend less well with dis­trac­tion and to in­ter­nalise shame. How­ever, it isn’t the mind-set that drops peo­ple into poverty, and nor does it ex­plain why some never es­cape from it.

Poverty it­self, not the du­ra­tion of time on wel­fare, ap­pears to be the prime cul­prit. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the stud­ies show that peo­ple wor­ried about fi­nan­cial prob­lems per­form less well in spa­tial and rea­son­ing tasks. As the pa­per con­cludes: ‘‘If you’re wor­ried about evic­tion, you may for­get a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment; if you’re pre­oc­cu­pied with how to pay the bills, you may be worse at mak­ing other de­ci­sions. That is a very dif­fer­ent thing, how­ever, from say­ing that peo­ple who don’t have the right at­ti­tude re­main poor.’’

This is not to deny per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, or a role for mo­ti­va­tion. But is be­ing on wel­fare re­ally the de­ter­mi­nant of fu­ture neg­a­tive so­cial out­comes that lo­cal politi­cians such as Bill English and Paula Bennett have long claimed? In the re­cent Bud­get, that be­lief was a lead­ing driver in the govern­ment’s $2 bil­lion ‘‘so­cial in­vest­ment’’ tar­get­ing. Yet on the news­pa­per’s ev­i­dence, in­come seems to be a more re­li­able pre­dic­tor of whether peo­ple suc­ceed in the re­li­able es­cape routes from poverty – like say, ed­u­ca­tion – than the time they’ve spent on wel­fare.

Geog­ra­phy also plays a role. Be­ing born into poor com­mu­ni­ties in, say, North­land cre­ates tougher odds than be­ing poor in New Ply­mouth, or Auck­land. Log­i­cally, such ge­o­graph­i­cal fac­tors par­tially un­der­mine the poverty-is-mind­set ar­gu­ment. Do more peo­ple in one re­gion all suf­fer from a worse mind­set than those liv­ing else­where in the coun­try? Hardly.

The so-called ‘‘tough-love’' ap­proach – if you’re poor, you have only you and your bad mind­set to blame – may ul­ti­mately be self-de­feat­ing. Once you in­di­vid­u­alise the cause of poverty, this turns a so­cial prob­lem into a psy­cho­log­i­cal one – and the shame in­volved can then erode the abil­ity of peo­ple to per­form the ‘‘pull your­self up by your boot­straps’’ re­sponses that are be­ing ex­pected of them.

In the ‘‘so­cial in­vest­ment’’ ap­proach to poverty, Big Data tools com­monly used within the in­sur­ance and fi­nance sec­tors are be­ing de­ployed to ‘‘pre­dict’’ abuse and de­pen­dency among ‘‘prob­lem’’ fam­i­lies that share sim­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics. The risks in­clude cir­cu­lar rea­son­ing, racial pro­fil­ing and stig­ma­ti­sa­tion. As with Ben Car­son, cause and ef­fect can read­ily be con­fused. Ar­guably, poverty can’t be ‘‘fixed’’ if politi­cians fo­cus mainly on its con­se­quences.

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