Investing in people, regardless of return
Like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot, many of us are blissfully unaware of the change currently going on in welfare reform. The National Government’s big innovation is taking an investment approach to welfare: spending money on early intervention programmes targeted at people who would probably need a lot of government support later in life.
To accomplish this, someone must analyse a lot of information about a lot of people from a huge number of sources to predict how much someone will cost the state in terms of education, health, justice, and social welfare interventions over their lifetime. If it is predicted that someone will cost more than they contribute, then some of this overall lifetime spending can then be brought forward to try new innovative welfare solutions.
Herein lies the opportunity but also the danger. We need to be sure efficiency doesn’t overtake humanity.
The water in our pot has been heating slowly for some time. ACC analyses injury costs as a way of setting ACC levies. As anyone who rides a motorbike will know, people who engage in higher risk activities pay higher ACC premiums. Immigration New Zealand does the same thing with migrant applications. They assess the risk that someone coming to New Zealand will end up costing the tax payer more than the person contributes to New Zealand. If the expected earnings of a migrant and therefore their tax income doesn’t cover their expected health or justice costs imposed by a known illness or history of criminal offending they will most likely find it hard to get a New Zealand passport.
But, we are now discussing the fate of people who are already New Zealanders and shaped by New Zealand’s history, the good and the bad. What happens in the near future when a person visits a government agency and a computer algorithm establishes that no matter how much the government “invests,” this person will remain a net “cost” to society? What will be the human result of knowing too much, or thinking we can predict life outcomes with certainty?
Taking an investment approach to helping people in vulnerable and disadvantaged situations can be compassionate and smart, helping people avoid potential hardship and suffering – the equivalent of paying for a guardrail at the top of the cliff instead of the ambulance at the bottom. But it’s important that moving to a mindset of “investing in people” doesn’t shift government perspectives to the point of assessing people as investments, with an expected return.
People have a worth and dignity no matter what their life decisions or circumstances. As a society, we owe an equal duty of care to every person, no matter the expected return on “investment.”
It is crucial that there is very clear ethical underpinning to all this social investment before we let the algorithms lose on welfare policy. To do otherwise runs the risk of once again stigmatising and harming the most vulnerable.