Child poverty and bad parenting a 'middle class New Zealand myth' - researchers
There is no evidence for a link, experts say, but it's not uncommon to hear people discuss society's ills in a parenting context.
Police minister Judith Collins first provoked howls of disagreement from children's advocates, then she said her comments about a "poverty of parental responsibility" were taken out of context.
RNZSo, is there a relationship between bad parenting and child poverty?
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It's too simplistic to relate one to the other.
Some parents are bad and their children may end up in dire straits.
HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES
First off, there are all kinds of disagreements about how to measure child poverty, or poverty generally. The number of children in poverty varies depending on the threshold settings.
In New Zealand, the figure is roughly 95,000 children in the worst circumstances of "severe poverty" and around 300,000 below the poverty threshold.
"The short answer is there's just no evidence of a link between parenting and child poverty.
"You will find a small number of people who make bad decisions. That's the tail end and a very small piece of the poverty picture.
RNZ Morning Report"Income is most fundamental. People don't have enough money alongside critical issues about housing and housing costs. There's a range of stuff around health and education. If we are going to be serious about child poverty, improve incomes, access to health and education.
"But to the extent there's any kind of parenting dimension, it's very minimal, it's a red herring and a distraction."
Government rhetoric, in New Zealand and overseas, was partly to blame for the myth-making. Historically, before economic reforms of the 1990s, levels of child poverty in New Zealand were much lower.
But this does not mean Kiwi parenting was worse.
Housing pressures - increases in rents, house prices and costs - had hit parents' pockets.
"It's easy to point the finger," O'Brien said.
"In some ways at the risk of being simplistic it's easier to blame parents rather than doing something about the social and economic setting.
"Forty per cent of children in poverty are in households in paid work. Are we saying there's a large chunk of parents who are working who are inadequate? That's hard to sustain. This is not about behaviour. It's about access to resources, the way we distribute opportunity.
"Families struggle to make ends meet. The margins are slim.
"Let's not just be persuaded by the story over the bar or down the club but let's really stand back. There has to be something more than just bad parents. Something fundamental in the way we organise ourselves. If we were in the same circumstances, how would we live our lives?"
An action group spokeswoman said Collins' comments, even if her words were out of context, chimed with some people.
"Probably there's a lot of middle class New Zealand that doesn't see poverty. They are blind-sided by not being able to see or understand. It's steeped in racism as well."
The Morgan Foundation researcher Dr Jess Berenton-Shaw has said the "bad, undeserving parent myth" causes trouble because people want to help children, not their families.
It was far easier and lazier to play the blame game.
"We talk about providing minimum standards for children in housing, yet families in poverty are not able to find, access or afford decent accommodation for their children."
In response to Collins' comments, Berenton-Shaw said there were elements of truth in what the minister said but "when someone steps up with a smattering of some complex truths scattered amongst the mythology it gets traction."
Research is beginning to filter through into the public domain about the power of early-life experiences, the environment, and the availability of resources to shape lives. In other words, those early years are so crucial it's difficult to undo their effects.
One of the real problems in low-income families is stress and research in the United Kingdom showed extra cash provided for child welfare was spent on children. Berenton-Shaw also said there was no evidence state care of around 5000 of the most deprived children was better than their family environment.
"She is not crushing the PC brigade, she is just wrong, wrong on what the evidence says and wrong about what New Zealanders value."
To complicate matters there is no such thing as a perfect measure of poverty. Calling it child poverty also doesn't help when it's really "family poverty" and unconsciously separates children from parents.