Salvation army “state of the nation” report

Via the Herald I spotted this State of the Nation report by the Salvation Army (Note:  The core report can be found here).  It is nicely put together, taking a whole series of publicly available data and making it fit for public consumption!  Also I appreciate their focus on shining attention on issues that get underplayed in public – let us be honest, house prices and interest rates get more play in the media than they really deserve, while some issues around poverty and discrimination receive less play.  I don’t blame the media for this, it is just the way of things, but having analysts publicly trying to talk about these other issues (as the Sallies is) is choice.  I tried to make this point when discussing the report on the panel.

Of course, you know me.  I find the “scoreboard format” a bit naff – making these things into strict “targets” can be a bit misleading.  Furthermore, the report embodies a set of value judgments – and these just may not be the moral judgments of the public.

Here are the notes I quickly tied together when I found I would have to speak on the report.  The notes have very little to do with anything I said – as they involved discussing and critiquing the report, when the interview ended up being a defence of the focus of the report.

I am not sure they are particularly useful, and would suggest reading the report yourself if you have a bit of time – however, it may serve as a marker of things to keep an eye out for when reading 😉

Interest of report in terms of issues:

  1. Opportunity for individual (especially children)
  2. Social insurance for bad luck – and what is the appropriate scope here.  Note:  moral hazard.

Child poverty:

  1. Falling in absolute terms
  2. Constant in relative terms
  3. Note:  When we are describing the opportunity of the child, the relevant figure lies between the two

Violence against children:

  1. Strong lift.  As the report says “patterns of recorded offences for assaults on children and child neglect may, however, have been influenced by changing enforcement practices by police” eg changes to Crimes Act in 2007 coming into use and practice by policy.
    1. When we see “reported” figures, we have to realise that there are cases of abuse not being reported – if social rules and police practices are changing, a higher measured figure may imply we are now doing more to deal with abuse.
    2. Even so, there also has to be a concern that the difficult socio-economic situation in many areas during this period has led to some parents lashing out against children.  In that context, the issue requires further investigation.


  1. Increasing enrolment in early childhood programmes
  2. Narrowing gap between different decile schools.
  3. These are major positive factors.  We are interested in the opportunities of the child, and receiving a strong education is a massive part of that.


  1. Broad based improvements, but relatively high incarceration rates.  The main concern here should be the make-up of the prison population, why are some minorities over-represented?  This is a long-lasting issue.

Benefits, work, and income

  1. Most of the trends are due to the prolonged economic cycle, and the nature of the current recovery (rising retail, construction related, hiring of youth).
  2. The safety net has largely done its job – the current argument is between those who want it to do less vs those who see a role for a more active and supportive welfare state.  This debate is one about the very nature of society – and can only be determined by society.
  3. Note:  There were significant classification changes in benefits and the job seeker figures – I generally don’t see them as a reliable data source anymore.

Drug, alcohol, gambling

  1. There is social harm from things, and that is policy relevant.  But a lot of this starts to sound paternalistic.  When I think about my own habits, I think about how little I would like people messing around telling me to change my choices, or telling me what I should do.  This is an area where we need to be a little more careful with the ‘balance’ than just treating things as harm.


  • Agree with the salvation army that the key issue is around children, child poverty, and education.  The way we treat children as a society directly determines the opportunities of people in the future – if we start off allowing inequalities in opportunity and self-perception start when people are young, they will only be reinforced as the children become adults.
  • The debate that exits is one of household vs community/social responsibility over the child – just as the salvation army says.  But there are incredibly hard questions in this that we would need to face when we evaluate these issues – we are interested in the opportunity and welfare of the child therefore we need to ask:
    • As a society, are we giving households sufficient opportunity to claim resources to give their child a “fair start”?  What is a fair start?
    • What is appropriate for society to do in the case of a “bad parent”? [What is a “bad parent” – namely the idea that, for the same income, it is a parent who values the child as a low level, leading to less investment in the child]
    • Can society observe when the parent is “bad”?
    • How much of “bad” parenting is due to social pressures and exclusion, how much is due to lack of information and history, and how much is it simply what some people are like?
    • How much do some members of society implicitly bias their actions towards members of certain groups?
    • How much is there a trade-off between cultural support and opportunities in some communities – eg households may stick together to look after each other, but this may involve them pulling their kid out of school at times of the year, which lowers the child’s educational opportunities.
    • How much of this cultural support is the result of current social biases, and how much may be irreversible?
  • A lot of these questions are hard to think about, in fact even mentioning them will make a myriad of people hate me.  But they are the sort of things that we all implicitly make choices about when deciding on what we think is the right “balance between personal and social responsibility”.
    • There is no simple answer.  But I’d agree with the Salvation Army that the issue is too important to ignore, deserves more explicit measurement, and more public debate.  Even though I would disagree with the Salvation Army’s caricature of neo-liberal, which I take as a sneaky swipe against economists.
  • There is another issue of social insurance.  Sometimes things go wrong in life, and the government – as a representative of society – can help lend a hand.  Even if opportunities exist when you are young, such big shocks can fundamentally undermine an individuals wellbeing.
    • A lot of social insurance in NZ is implicit, or is expected but does not exist (eg the lack of bailouts for finance companies).  This is another issue we need to face, and given the provision of insurance is costly we need to determine what we are willing to pay, and what is fair as a society.
    • Issues of “moral hazard” (people taking on riskier behaviour as it is insured) vs help given true uncertainty, and limits of insurance markets.