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.