Election Series: Investing in the well-being of all children by Michael O’Brien

Michael O’Brien is the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) spokesperson on social security. Mike is an Associate Professor at the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland, and has written extensively on poverty and social security issues.

The idea of social investment has been central to a range of government policies over the last few years. While it has had a number of different descriptions and uses, the central idea is that government financial resources should be targeted to those children and families at high risk of poor outcomes.

Health, education, care and protection of children, mental health and housing resources will be focused on activities which are the most effective at reducing risk and producing better outcomes. The approach will also apply to government funding of not-for-profit organisations.

How is social investment targeted?

Those at risk of poor outcomes are identified by using data from different government departments. The major risks identified are receiving a benefit for the majority of a child’s life, limited formal education, a parent having a prison sentence and a confirmed notification of child abuse.

These risks are linked to poor outcomes for children like failing to gain a school qualification, a prison sentence, being a sole parent before age 20, time on a benefit and adolescent referral for offending. Put simply, the plan is that organisations and professionals working in fields like social services would identify the families at risk and target their services to those families and their children.

Is this the best way to target resources?

At first sight, the idea of giving priority to children and families appears both commonsense and a practical use of money and skilled professional time. Who of us would not want the outcomes to be better for these children and their families? However, Child Poverty Action Group’s work raises some very important questions about both the approach itself, and the information on which the social investment approach is based.

Briefly, the work that has been done on the data shows that the statistical link between the risks and the outcomes is not strong. To summarise the discussion, some of those who are at risk don’t have poor outcomes and some of those who have poor outcomes are not identified as being at risk.

This means that some of those who need services will not receive them and some of those who would be identified as needing supervision and services would not in fact need them. It is an approach in which children and their families would face the very real possibility of being judged and stigmatised because of being identified as “at risk” of failure. Furthermore, people are not just statistics. They live their lives in family and community relationships which statistics can’t always capture and our health, social and education programmes are only successful if they work with all of these factors.

Reducing poverty is key

Second, looking at the information available, there is a strong relationship between the risk factors, the poor outcomes and poverty. Again, summarising the evidence, the areas and regions in which there is high risk and poor outcomes are the areas in which there is also high poverty and deprivation.

This indicates very clearly that the critical factors needing attention are the levels of poverty and improving the circumstances and situation of children and families. Reducing poverty for both beneficiaries and those in paid work will make a significant impact on both risk and poor outcomes.

Investing in the wellbeing of children

The heavy targeting approach on which social investment is based should be replaced by a comprehensive approach to investing in families and children. In addition to improving incomes and reducing poverty, this would ensure that all children and their families live in affordable, safe and healthy homes; we have seen awful statistics lately about the effects on children of living in cold damp houses. It also means that children would have access to health care when they need it, and educational opportunities and support to allow them to make the most of their talents and abilities and make their best contribution to society.

Investing in the wellbeing of children makes very good sense for a number of obvious reasons. If we are serious about investing to ensure the best outcomes for all children, then, as a society, we need to invest in programmes that promote and support the interests of all children. A narrow approach which targets a small group defined as “at risk” will harm those children and is not a sensible or constructive approach to investing in children.

[Blog Moderator’s note: Read more about “Investing in Children” approach on the Child Poverty Action Group website]

More about Michael O’Brien, including publications and papers he has authored on child poverty, social investment and related matters.

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