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Cherry-picking statistics for political point-scoring

The much-awaited annual Household Incomes Report (HIR) from the Ministry of Social Development landed last week and has sparked significant debate on poverty and inequality in New Zealand. From author Bryan Perry’s overview, we find that since the last survey overall median incomes have risen by 4%, the number of families in poverty has fallen slightly back to pre-recession levels (according to most measures), and despite a slight rise in inequality in this year, the inequality figures across multiple years remain steady. 

The responses from all political corners piqued my interest, with both the left and the right all of a sudden deviating from the measurements they have used in past speeches and announcements. For example, National—unsurprisingly—lauded the findings, with Paula Bennett welcoming the 3% drop in child poverty according to a measurement that counts the number of kids living in households that earn below 60% of the median income line, after housing costs. This measurement—responsible for the oft-repeated “one-in-four kiwi kids in poverty” figure—showed the largest decrease in numbers. Uncharacteristically, Bennett also mentioned income inequality, a subject usually sidestepped by the National Government. 

Labour also displayed some curious, eyebrow-raising behaviour. While acknowledging a “small drop” in poverty overall referring to the measure Bennett used, Jacinda Ardern decried a “record high” number of families below a more severe 40% median income line. This measure is rarely used, and was the only one to have worsened between surveys. The Greens followed suit by arguing the “number of children living in poverty has grown by 35,000 under this National Government,” basing their claim on the 50% below median income measure—the measure that rose the most out of all measures between 2007 and 2013. Neither Labour or the Greens mentioned income inequality, usually a key issue for both parties. 

There’s always going to be an incentive to choose (or more cynically, cherry-pick) the stats that best support a pre-conceived stance or will score the most political points. Evidence-based policy is a good thing, but we need to be wily consumers of the evidence we’re offered—not all is equal and none of it is purely objective. Different poverty measurements tell different stories, and as Perry writes, we need to “be aware of the different rationales for and pictures presented by the different measures.” If we don’t, we risk being sold a lemon of a policy without realising it. 

I’ve argued previously about how hyperbole hurts the poor, and why we need to get the balance right between chasing headlines and changing lives. Like the HIR, our recently-released Issues Paper on Poverty called The Heart of Poverty aims to deepen and demystify the discussion around understanding, defining and measuring poverty in New Zealand. We’d love your input. 

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