Gordon Campbell on the causes of poverty

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One of the enduring myths of the conservative right is that poverty is primarily a state of mind, and that welfare assistance only corrodes the mindset necessary for people to pull themselves out of poverty. Such views have been given a new lease of life by Ben Carson, head of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. “You take somebody with the wrong mind-set,” Carson said in a radio interview last week: “You can give them everything in the world. They’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.” In similar vein, Carson has suggested that public housing shouldn’t be heated too cosily lest that too,should promote a welfare dependent mindset.

Last week, Carson’s views received some grudging support on RNZ’s own conservative radio show, The Panel.

In fact, as the New York Times pointed out in a rejoinder, the research evidence indicates that Carson may have confused cause and effect, and got them around the wrong way.

Poverty is in some ways a state of mind, studies show, in that it can cause people to think less clearly, to sleep less well, to contend with distraction and to internalize shame. But it’s the experience of deprivation that leads to the mind-set, researchers say. It’s not the mind-set that leads people into poverty, or that explains why many never escape it.

In experiments, they’ve shown that people who are asked to think about financial problems — or who experience financial strain — perform worse on spatial and reasoning tasks. Poverty, they argue, exacts a mental tax akin to lowering a person’s IQ. And those mental costs have a way of reinforcing poverty. If you’re worried about eviction, you may forget a doctor’s appointment; if you’re preoccupied with how to pay the bills, you may be worse at making other decisions. That is a very different thing, however, from saying that people who don’t have the right attitude remain poor.

This is not to deny personal responsibility, and a role for motivation. Yet… is being on welfare really the main determinant of future negative social outcomes that the likes of Bill English and Paula Bennett routinely suggest, and should such beliefs on their part be allowed to shape the policies (and budgets) when it comes to social investment? The causal nexus of sustained poverty is complex but the bulk of research, as the NYT also points out, indicates that income is a far stronger predictor of life outcomes like educational attainment, than the time spent on welfare.

Geography also plays a role. Be born poor say, in Northland and you may face higher odds than being poor in New Plymouth, or Auckland.

One large recent study, led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty, showed that poor children face very different odds of scaling the income ladder — of achieving the Ben Carson story — depending on where they grow up. Poor children in Montgomery, Alabama. for example, are less likely than poor children in San Francisco to reach the middle and upper class as adults.

Logically, the geographical factors also help to undermine the poverty-is-mindset argument. Do more people in one region all happen to have a worse mindset than those living elsewhere in the country? Hardly. The same arguments, the NYT adds, apply internationally as well – in that a son’s income is more closely linked to a father’s income in the US than is the case elsewhere in the developed world. As an aside, such statistics fly in the face of the belief in American exceptionalism that is so dear to so many US conservatives:

Why is there so much more poverty here than in other wealthy countries? Are Americans more likely to have the wrong mind-set? If U.S. exceptionalism derives from particular strengths of the American character, can it also be true that a vast share of Americans — more than 40 million lived under the poverty line last year — lack the will to lift themselves up?

Regardless, critics of welfare continue to warn that the provision of assistance enables the recipients to blame society for their hardship. Yet the allegedly ‘toughlove’ alternative – if you’re poor, you have only you and your bad mindset to blame – would seem to run the risk of being equally self-defeating. If you individualise the cause of poverty, this turns a social problem into a psychological one, and personal fault readily gets internalised. Among other things, the shame involved can easily erode the ability of those in need to perform the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ response that’s being expected of them.

As the researchers cited by the NYT conclude, we don’t draw similar conclusions – from the example of the occasional exceptional individual – about groups other than the poor. (eg John McCain’s life story, they say, doesn’t imply that veterans who struggle with PTSD haven’t tried hard enough.) The risks of the’ social investment’ approach to poverty – and the related use of Big Data tools honed in the insurance and finance sectors to ‘predict’ abuse and dependency among a target group of “problem” families that share similar characteristics – are genuine, and they go largely unacknowledged by the politicians keen to promote this approach. The risks include tendencies to circular reasoning, racial profiling and cultural stigmatisation. As with Ben Carson, cause and effect can be confused.

After all, the value of predictive modelling work lies in its alleged ability to accurately predict those cases where child abuse will later be substantiated. Circular reasoning can readily creep into this process, and raise the spectre of racial profiling and stigmatisation. To critics [of the Predictive Risk Management] approach, that’s a problem with the three main risk factors cited above: families already known to CYF are subject to more surveillance and monitoring, therefore children already known to them are likely to have a flag in the system for subsequent babies born to those parents.

“This,” as one social work academic interviewed for this article told me, “would partly explain why contact with CYF for older children and parents’ own CYF histories are such strong predictors. “

This isn’t to say, she added, that abuse isn’t occurring among such families – but if abuse is occurring elsewhere and amid other families, it is less likely to be picked up due to less monitoring; plus if older children have been substantiated, that too is likely to add to the risk picture and will lead to the substantiating of other children from the same families.

This should suggest to us that the mindset of the people driving the current social investment policies may be as questionable as the mindset of the poor…at least when it comes down to explaining why poverty and negative behaviours recur, and why certain social groups are being selectively targeted by the authorities. As one researcher in the above Werewolf article pointed out:

To offer an individualised ‘service’ that does not, indeed cannot, address the broader social policy issues is deeply problematic. It assigns a stigmatised status to individuals in a manner that removes all attention from the wider policy landscape, and implicitly creates a narrative that there are certain people ‘out there’, who are fundamentally different from the rest of us, who have some kind of innate tendency to abuse children that, unless identified and prevented, will eventually express itself like a hidden gene waiting to trigger an inevitable disease process.

The risk of isolating and pathologising families – and communities – should be of concern to all of us. Unfortunately, poverty and its damaging side effects are a product of the same economic policies that have been applauded in last week’s Budget coverage.

No one wants children to be abused, and a focus on prevention is welcome, but ‘othering’ a sector of the population with no attention to the social landscape that contributes to their problems sorely challenges the ‘effective intervention’ side of the argument, while strengthening the stigma downsides.

Meaning: we can’t ‘fix’ poverty by focussing only on its consequences.