Unconditional government programmes such as universal child benefit work best to alleviate poverty. They give parents the resources they need for their children and it unlocks them from the stress associated with scarcity

Opinion: It would be fair to say that, regardless of our background, most of us have big aspirations for the children we love. We would do a lot to realise those aspirations too. For me, the specifics change as my kids grow, but in essence my aspirations for them boil down to this: I want them to thrive.

I am lucky because I have many resources I can draw on to provide them with opportunities to make such a life, without sacrificing my own wellbeing. It’s a painful reality that many parents don’t have similar resources.

Under-resourcing people raising children constrains them in multiple ways

As Jane Austen wrote in Mansfield Park, “a large income is the greatest recipe for happiness I ever heard”.

Read any of Austen’s stories about the limitations women – especially – faced in her time and she wasn’t saying that money buys you happiness. She was saying that money gives us independence and choices, and that not having enough is stressful, relentless and constraining.

And this is exactly what researchers have found when looking at the relationship between money and children’s outcomes – that the stress associated with scarcity significantly constrains parents and their children.

Kerris Cooper and Kitty Stewart did a huge systematic review into studies across the world on what helps children thrive. They found across similar countries to Aotearoa interventions that give parents more money improve outcomes in almost every area of a child’s life including health, mental wellbeing, education, earning power, and involvement with police.

Critically, it wasn’t just any type of money, it was money without the sort of conditions that are traditionally attached to welfare support.

Why did unconditional programmes work best? The authors concluded that when parents have insufficient resources, they can’t buy material things for their kids, but more important to understand is the stress that accompanies scarcity. Parental stress and what happens to us when we are stressed, they found, mediates the relationship between money and children’s wellbeing.

Understanding parental stress, scarcity and child wellbeing

It helps to understand Cooper and Stewart’s findings in the context of research that shows living in scarcity across different contexts limits people’s cognitive bandwidth – our problem solving, planning, executive functioning and decision making. For most of us, we know that being unbearably stressed, worried, and under pressure makes it extremely hard to do much. Under these conditions our brains are built for fight or flight – surviving but not thriving. Whereas parents who are not stressed by money have access to more social, psychological and cognitive resources, they can take better advantage of opportunities to help their children thrive.

Cooper and Stewart’s work suggests when people in policy use unconditional financial assistance, such as a universal child benefit, it gives parents the resources they need to create opportunities for their children and it unlocks them from the stress associated with scarcity. Conditional systems, however, simply add another layer of stress, whether that be shaming by people in the welfare system, being forced to do low paid precarious work when they want to acquire more skills, having to wait for an ex-partner to pay child support, or people in government making you put your baby in childcare with people you don’t trust.

Unconditional cash support is a strength-led policy, it recognises the resilience in parents, especially mothers on their own, and the aspirations they have for their children. And it unlocks more social, psychological and behavioural resources for them to do what they do best.

Our public infrastructure locks parents and kids into poverty and stress

In Aotearoa there are a lot of people, especially parents, especially mothers, and especially mothers who are Māori and Pasifika, being forced to live under conditions of scarcity. Some of them live under the so-called poverty line, some are existing just above it and the next big bill will send them over. Some are managing their own health problems, some are disabled and have kids who are disabled. Many are working, many are in precarious work. Some come off and on welfare. All of them want more for themselves and their children. For all of them our public policy settings operate to lock them into poverty and the stress that comes with it.

It is something that all of us should be angry about, because it is a terrible injustice based on decisions people in politics and our public policy systems (welfare, education, housing, employment, childcare, tax, parental leave, etc.) have made. And these decisions have been driven not by evidence or logic but by some shallow and offensive mindsets about why people are poor and who is poor.

Narratives of individualism and racism drive people to make harmful public policy

When researchers in the US at the FrameWorks Institute looked at the narratives present in society about the causes of poverty, they found two deeply unhelpful and false narratives.

The first dominant narrative is that poverty is a problem of individual effort. There are the bootstraps stories that tell us about people who overcome bad luck or poverty. Myths of meritocracy tell us we all have the same opportunities to prosper as long as we make good decisions and work for it. Western culture is filled with stories of people who are well off because of individual effort – they worked hard and prevailed – but they are poor because they failed to make good choices.

I’ll preface what I write next by apologising to Black and Indigenous people and people of colour who yet again have to read harmful and untrue things about themselves. Because the second dominant and false narrative about causes of poverty in the US is embedded in racist thinking and ideas. It is a narrative researchers named “the pathology of Black urban poverty”.

A flimsy and foul step up from narratives that place Black or indigenous people as biologically inferior to white people, it is a narrative in which Black people are viewed as “a homogenous culture that normalises attitudes, norms, and behaviour that drive ‘them’ into poverty and keep them there”. The term “welfare queens” is an example of this narrative.

The authors note, “this narrative has roots in the long and deep history of dehumanisation of Black people in American culture and is rooted in the history of racial-settler capitalism”.

Another term associated with this pathology of poverty narrative is “broken families”. Bill English was known to use this term when talking about the need for social investment (it is not that far off Luxon’s recent use of the term “bottom feeders”). Regardless of people’s intentions, when terms like these are used they are referencing this “culture of poverty” narrative. Ultimately it is just another racist dog whistle that calls to people’s minds ideas of brown families in particular who “choose” to live on welfare for cultural or lifestyle reasons.

Together these individualism and racism narratives can dominate people’s thinking about how poverty happens and why and to who. The thinking these narratives engenders obscures what we know are the external causes of poverty, and critically the strengths and resilience of people who live in poverty. It embeds racist tropes, and leads to racist and deficit-led policies and practices that particularly harm Bipoc people, and ultimately harms all people who need support.

A good example of how these narratives and ways of thinking about poverty play out to deliver racist policies in New Zealand is the “subsequent child” welfare policy Paula Bennett introduced to punish women who had a child while on the benefit. It was a policy that drew on racist tropes of a “culture or lifestyle of poverty”. It worked to harm Māori and Pasifika women and their children most because of their lower rates of pay, higher rates of poverty, and larger family sizes. It harmed all women who were on low incomes in the same position.

As untrue, shallow and harmful these individualism and racism narratives are, hope rests in the fact that many mindsets and narratives can be held in a society at one time, even if some tend to dominate. And more accurate reasoning and narratives about poverty have been identified as co-existing alongside these inaccurate and harmful ones.

Poverty is also understood to be about unfair ‘systems’ 

The same US researchers found a narrative about causes of poverty that reflected something closer to the truth. That poverty is due to an unfair system. Specifically, they identified a narrative that ran through our stories which reflected thinking that “the system is rigged” to benefit a smaller and smaller and richer and richer group of people in society.

The Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos effect. However, they found that people didn’t really have much of an idea as to how this unfair system was created, by who, or what the solutions to it are. As a consequence, the unfair or rigged systems narrative has a strong note of inevitably and fatalism about it. In other words, it doesn’t help people understand and support systems and structural changes that work to overcome poverty.

Enacting poverty solutions that work requires reframing the causes and solutions of poverty

I wrote a book on unconditional cash five years ago, and from an evidential basis it remains clear that unconditional cash has the ability to transform many parents’ and children’s lives. What I didn’t fully understand then, however, was that to embed such solutions – and other effective policies that centre parents’ capabilities and skills, compassion for people, and our connection with each other – we need to present more than evidence. We need new narratives about poverty and how it happens and what works to overcome it to deepen people’s thinking.

I think it is quite achievable with plenty of examples of big mindset and narrative shifts happening throughout history (for good and bad transformations) from the neoliberal project through to the end of Apartheid.

The FrameWorks researchers recommend that we need more stories across society that use effective communication techniques to help people understand that:

“Poverty is a product of our choices as a society. Through our collective decisions, we have designed an economic system that produces poverty. By changing policies and institutions, we can redesign the system, change the outcomes it produces, and solve poverty.”

Helping people understand how racist ideas and thinking have informed these decisions and systems will be a critical factor in asserting this more truthful narrative.

Such narrative shifts will help people understand why policies such as unconditional cash do work for most people and would have a transformative impact for communities, families, and especially women raising children in scarcity. It would unlock them from the many constraints that our society puts on them, and treat them as the strong and resilient people and parents they are.

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