Between risk and reality
We use statistics to inform policy development and public discourse—it is a tool to better society. But like most tools, when misused or misunderstood, statistics can be dangerous.
The annual release of MSD’s suite of income and material well-being reports usually spark a statistical squabble about the number of children or families in poverty (and who is to blame, of course). Despite unequivocal advice by author Bryan Perry to both focus on longer-run trends rather than year-on-year changes and to consider a range of measurements rather than just one—last year many chose to “gild the lily” by trumpeting year-on-year rises in cherry-picked headline figures.
Much of the debate this year, however, was rightly focused on the rising impact of a lack of housing affordability, as most poverty and hardship trends were considered to be “flat or falling.” This doesn’t make for attention-grabbing headlines.
One point of interest in this release and another “common misunderstanding” that Perry deems “warrants specific attention,” is the idea that most or all those under an income poverty threshold are suffering most or all hardships associated with low income. An example of a claim like this is from UNICEF New Zealand’s website: “when a child grows up in poverty they miss out on things most New Zealanders take for granted. They are living in cold, damp, over-crowded houses, they do not have warm or rain-proof clothing, their shoes are worn, and many days they go hungry.”
What this statement implies is that all of the children under such-and-such poverty line—one-in-four kiwi kids for example—are suffering and going without the listed basic housing, clothing and food needs.
Taking damp and mouldy houses as an example, Perry shows that the data tells a different story. Of the 290,000 children living in households in the bottom income quintile, around 50,000 children—17% of those in the bottom income quintile—are living in households where dampness and mould is a major problem. This kind of relationship holds for many other types of deprivations.
Now, 50,000 children living in substandard housing is completely unacceptable—every child should grow up in a warm, dry and safe home. Every child. This finding in no way undermines the need to continue to improve the quality of our housing stock. But to paint a picture that 100% of those in low income families are in substandard housing is simply not true.
Not only is this narrative misleading, if taken to heart by the majority of New Zealanders it has the potential to influence policy-makers to implement politically-driven, poorly-targeted policies that may misdirect limited funding, and ultimately fail to best help those who need it most. Poverty is far more complex than any headline figures can portray. Income measures alone better represent who is at risk of poverty than who’s definitely in it, and the sooner we grasp this, the sooner we can get on with the real business of developing policies that better deal with the complex, overlapping and entrenched challenges and disadvantages that many families are facing.