9 Apr 2024

Measuring poverty just got harder

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 9 April 2024

The uncertain future of two comprehensive studies on children and poverty has sparked fears the data gap will lead to leaky sieve policies. How can we fix problems we don't know about?

Photo: 123rf

Two long term surveys focussing on children and poverty are the casualties of public service cost cuts, raising fears that without the data there is no real measure of hardship afflicting families in Aotearoa. 

The future of Auckland University's Growing Up in New Zealand study involving several thousand children and their families is uncertain after the government did not renew its contract in February.

Laura Walters

Laura Walters Photo: Laura Walters / Twitter

The university and the government are looking at the funding options for the 15-year-old study which covers a range of topics from mental health to schooling.

In the same week that news of that study's future funding was at risk, StatsNZ axed its own unique but short-lived Living in Aotearoa survey.

"This Living in Aotearoa survey was set up to measure whether families or children were living in persistent poverty," says Newsroom political editor Laura Walters. "If you don't have that data, then you don't have a measure of persistent poverty."

Without the data, governments could argue that there are no families living in persistent poverty, she says.

"But can you say that truly if you don't have the data to back it up?"

The cut to one study and uncertainty over another reflect the pressures on research and universities, particularly the high-cost projects such as multi-year longitudinal studies, says Walters.

The Living in Aotearoa survey included communities that often fall through the cracks when it comes to collecting data such as tax information because they may be unemployed households. Walters says it was a way of capturing that information about families and children.

"StatsNZ were really proud of this survey and its unlikely that they wanted to cut it but like every other ministry at the moment they have to find efficiencies. They need to cut programmes, they need to cut jobs. And this, while being very good quality data it's also incredibly expensive to gather and they found it wasn't a very efficient way of getting these statistics," she says.

Walters was actually a participant in the survey and says it was time consuming both for the surveyor and her own family. Surveyors have to go into often remote communities where they have no connections, convince people to take part and convince them to stay involved.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - January 23: Children &Young Peoples Commission Board Portraits January 23, 2024 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/ http://marktantrum.com)

Chief Children's Commissioner Claire Achmad Photo: Supplied / Mark Tantrum

The Chief Children's Commissioner Dr Claire Achmad says the funding risks to the Auckland University study and cutting Living in Aotearoa will leave a large gap in our understanding of "this group of particularly disadvantaged children and young people".

She says the information is essential to shaping the right policies and targeting the investment to improve children's lives.

"It's not something that right now we have a deep understanding of in Aotearoa New Zealand. We don't understand the extent to which the numbers of children are experiencing persistent poverty."

StatsNZ says it will now look at collecting data on persistent poverty through its existing long-running Household survey and Achmad says she will be watching closely. She wants the study of child poverty to be an ongoing project of national significance that is guaranteed ongoing funding.

"Data relating to children, the fact is that needs to be above party politics," Achmad says.

Walters tells The Detail that the danger of scrimping on "rich" research is that governments ending up with policies that are not well targeted and cost millions or billions of dollars.

"This government has spoken a lot about setting targets, about measuring outcomes, about using data to hold itself to account and to make sure that it knows that it is spending money in the right places and not wasting money.

"But if you don't have the data, the high quality data to measure that stuff then what do those targets mean, what do those outcomes mean, what do they even stand for?"

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