Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 18/02/2014

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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A tale of two poverty discussions

Over the past few weeks much discussion has been occurring in both the US and here in New Zealand about poverty. Everybody, on both sides of the Pacific, know that it’s a problem, but the two societies differ greatly in how they’re talking about it.

Here in New Zealand recent conversation has focused in on inequality (see Bryce Edward’s political roundups here and here for an overview).

For the political left, inequality has increased in New Zealand during the time that National has been leading government with supposedly disastrous consequences for both those being left behind and the rest of society.

The political right disputes the statistics on which the left is basing this claim, saying that, if anything, inequality has remained relatively stable over the past six years. 

Regardless of where anyone currently commenting sits politically, however, they all seem to be agreeing that the main thing to be tackling in the arena of poverty is inequality—they are just quibbling over how much of a pressing issue that inequality is right now and who’s to blame for it.

Now compare this discussion to that occurring in the US. There, commentators are concerned about poverty—and some also talking about inequality—but the current focus of discussion has been on how to get people out of poverty, particularly about the role of marriage in getting and keeping people out of poverty. 

This recent discussion was touched off by a study released from Harvard, which found that the biggest predictor of economic mobility was family structure—that is, that children raised not only by married parents but even those raised in communities with married couples were more likely to be socially mobile than their counterparts raised by single parents or in communities with lots of single-parent households.

The findings of this particular study reinforce the findings of much recent research that marriage is generally negatively correlated with poverty—that is, that married people and families are less likely to be in poverty than the single and single-parent families.

In the light of the Harvard study and the many that came before it, there is a general consensus on both left and right in the US that marriage is a good thing, and that it has the power to keep people out of poverty. What they’re discussing right now is what to do with this information—how do you get more people to get and stay married?

Those on the political right say that culture, especially pop culture created by elites and consumed by the lower classes, and current government policies around such things as divorce, welfare, and tax have degraded marriage.

Change the signals that culture and policy send to people about the importance of marriage, and we’ll see more people getting and staying married, fewer people (especially children) living in poverty, and a lowering of inequality.

Those on the political left, meanwhile, think that the right is putting the cart before the horse—where conservatives think that getting people to get and stay married will fix poverty, liberals contend that you need to fix poverty first and then people will get and stay married.

The left says that falling job security for those without university degrees and low wages especially among men mean that the “glory days” of male breadwinners and stay-at-home moms across the entire socio-economic spectrum are a thing of the past.

And even when people from lower class backgrounds get married, the stresses and strains of living in poverty tear them apart, resulting in heartbreak and single-parent households. Get more money into the hands of the poor, create more jobs for low and medium-skilled workers, and you’ll see more marriages, which will, in turn, keep more people from falling into poverty.

Two discussions on two sides of the Pacific—one focused on political point scoring (or point deflecting), and one focused on the families who actually live in poverty and how culture and policies could be better set up so as to support their flourishing.

I know which one I would prefer was going on here.

Our research Kieran Madden is currently compiling an Issues Paper on poverty that we will release in the first half of 2014 to stimulate and inform debate,  the first in a series of research with the ultimate goal of developing effective policies to alleviate poverty in New Zealand.

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Kieran Madden

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