Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 21/08/2015

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Defining and measuring what it means to be poor in New Zealand


heart of poverty, kieran madden, measuring poverty

Who is poor? How did they get there, and how has poverty damaged their lives?

The first paper in our project, The Heart of Poverty: Matching Passion with Precision, explored the concepts and ideas inherent in defining and measuring poverty. We sought consultation on this paper via written submissions and roundtable discussions, exploring concepts and ideas through research while harnessing the experience and wisdom of social workers, practitioners, non-profit staff and researchers, trust managers, academics, ministry representatives and political advisors.[1] Some remarkable insights were shared, and they have greatly shaped our thinking. Reflections on this consultation phase and our ensuing policy recommendations on definition and measurement of poverty are detailed in this paper.

“We all need to expose ourselves to stories and lives of those who do struggle, so that we are talking about them as people, so that their faces and lives don’t get lost in a sea of statistics and graphs. Graphs are tidy. People are messy.”

We also heard stories. We heard of a caravan park in south Auckland where people are at the lowest of the low: “It’s meant to be a holiday park where people stay for a time and leave, but it’s turned into a village with fifty year-old caravans the size of a boardroom table housing a husband, wife and four kids.” We heard of the grinding, scarring nature of poverty, as someone described it as “soul-crushing, mind-numbing, soul- destroying—the last thing thought about before going to bed at night and the first upon waking.” We heard how poverty shatters hopes and aspirations, when one child responded to the “what do you want to do when you grow up” question with “go to prison, like my dad.” We can’t help but be affected by stories like this, and we can’t afford to lose sight of those we’re trying to help. A social worker warned us, however, that there’s “a huge difference between listening to a story and actually learning.” We hope that our work will not only help bridge the listening-to-learning divide, but also other divides preventing effective action on poverty in New Zealand.


We will begin with a summary of key messages from the feedback we heard. The reflections below are a distillation of hours of meetings and thousands of words that highlight points of tension, resolution and agreement on the definition, measurement, causes and consequences of poverty and solutions to it. Representative quotes are included to help paint a more vivid picture of the concepts discussed.

“We all bring our own biases, but we all care.”

Ideological differences are one of the main tensions that arise when considering poverty in New Zealand.[2] Reasonable people who care deeply may disagree about how best to define, measure and help those in poverty. They’ll also likely disagree on why families end up in poverty and what keeps them there. While evidence can reduce the impact of ideology, different values will always influence how the evidence is gathered and interpreted.

Questions regarding the nature of poverty can be daunting, but having heard the passion and thoughtfulness of those at the table, we are both encouraged that there is a way forward together, and extremely grateful to all those who contributed feedback.


“People don’t know what they don’t know—there is another way to live. How can we put a light at the end of the tunnel?”

Both discussions and submissions pointed out that poverty can be defined in two ways: a broad sense that incorporates ideas like lack of hope, aspiration and relational/spiritual resources; or more narrowly, taking only material resources into account.

A broad conception of poverty recognises that poverty is about more than just income, more than just the material. This could include ideas like a “constraint of choice and knowledge”—that those in poverty lack the choices that we take for granted. Another concern was that a material-based definition would greatly encourage material-only solutions like increasing benefits at the expense of broader, potentially more effective policies.

“[Poverty] is more than not having enough stuff, it’s the way it affects mental health and social well-being.”

A narrow focus on material resources made more sense to some because if broader concepts and related causes and consequences are included in the definition, clarity and meaning are lost. In other words, if poverty means everything, it also means nothing at all. Others acknowledged the limitations of focusing on material resources such as income, but argued that they’re the best we’ve got, and likely to get. Furthermore, while measuring material resources poses challenges, measuring non-material aspects like lack of hope or aspirations is nigh impossible.

Most considered a material limitation on the definition necessary to prevent the idea of poverty from losing its meaning and impact. There was also a strong consensus that while this makes sense from an academic perspective, if we really care about policy that helps those in poverty it is critically important that we consider the non-material aspects, causes and consequences of poverty. These are related to poverty but not poverty itself.

“More money often isn’t enough, lets not limit our solutions.” 

Another strand of this debate questioned whether the current focus on child poverty was appropriate or not. Many shared that limiting our discussion to child poverty makes sense for several reasons: it provides a greater emotive force to support poverty-alleviating policy; it dodges moral questions as children are not responsible for their situation; and statistically, families with children are more likely to be in poverty.

“A focus on children is a focus on our future.”

Others strongly argued that we need to understand poverty from a family/whānau perspective, rather than isolating the children both conceptually and in practice when it comes to solutions. While the short-hand term “child poverty” is much easier to express than “parents with insufficient resources to meet theirs and their children’s needs,” it does tend to obscure that children have parents, and that together they constitute a family. Changing family structures were raised as well, and it was suggested that these changes must be understood better for policy to be effective, and could even offer opportunities for creative solutions.

“Poverty is overwhelmingly a brown issue.”

New Zealand’s cultural and regional diversity poses challenges for any definition that attempts to capture and reflect the customs and expectations of all New Zealanders. Several key questions arose regarding the definition offered in the Issues Paper:[3] Whose customs? Whose hopes and aspirations? What is unacceptable or important for Maori may not be for European New Zealanders, for example. These may also change across regions. How are these differences captured in a definition? These are genuine challenges to be overcome, and show the difficulty inherent in a relative understanding of poverty—what is unacceptable and minimal depends on who is asked.

And yet others highlighted the unity of the situations faced by all those in poverty – that there is a universal human dimension of poverty that doesn’t change with culture or region.

“The faces we see every day change but the situations do not.”


There was considerable agreement on how to measure poverty. Most participants expressed that when taken together, the current suite of income and material deprivation measures captured in the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD’s) annual reports were adequate for providing headline measures. The limitations of these measures were acknowledged, such as their tendency to over-simplify and sometimes misrepresent the complexity of what it means to be in poverty. While being easy to understand can be helpful, some preferred deprivation indicators over income measures, arguing that they are better grounded in real lives rather than academic best-guesses. We were also reminded just how difficult it is to measure resources—particularly in-kind resources like education and health.

“Poverty is not an all-or-nothing situation, but a continuum. People do not necessarily escape the afflictions of poverty by climbing just over the line, and many of those below the line have few permanent impacts.”

There was, however, an appetite to incorporate more multi-dimensional measures designed to capture the experiences, causes, consequences and risk factors related to poverty. It was recognised that these measures serve a different purpose to the headline income and deprivation measures—that they were much more effective and relevant to informing policy responses to help those in poverty and targeting at-risk groups. Many preferred the term “tailoring” here as it doesn’t have a negative connotation and expresses the idea of adapting support to meet the particular challenges that different families face. These measures were generally viewed as complements to the current suite of measures, rather than a replacement.

There was considerable support for the idea that poverty dynamics really matter; that understanding movements into and out of poverty were critical for solutions that span generations rather that just quick fixes. All participants who spoke about this area were unanimous that New Zealand needs to be better-equipped with robust longitudinal studies so we can better track what’s happening in the long run, particularly with respect to uncovering causes and consequences. It was also acknowledged that this innovation needs to be paired with easier access to socio-economic datasets (both point-in-time and longitudinal) for government and non- government researchers alike.


Of all our discussion topics, causes and consequences of poverty was perhaps the most controversial. This was expected, as eventual policy recommendations will, to some extent, depend on which cause (or combination of causes) is seen as a priority to tackle. Overwhelming agreement existed on the point that any generalisations around the causes and consequences of poverty were going to fall short. Because poverty is a complex situation, there is no single most important causal factor but a range of intertwined factors. Causes will differ among groups like age, ethnicity, working status and housing tenure, for example. Tracing causes and discerning consequences is notoriously difficult.

The main tension in this area—one which is of serious importance to resolve—was between those who argued that poverty was a symptom of other problems and those who thought it was the cause. For example, factors like family breakdown, mental illness, poor money management or no sense of purpose were named by some as the main causes of poverty. Others responded that it wasn’t these factors but instead a lack of resources that caused emotional stress and material deprivation, leading to problems like those just listed down the track.[4]

“Poverty is a major driver of a lot of social problems – there are some pretty big structural factors determining different starts in life.”

An important distinction between immediate and fundamental causes was also raised.[5] Immediate causes could include a low family income due to an inability or reluctance to participate in the market economy. Others also mentioned times of crisis, also known as life shocks, as immediate causes.[6] Life shocks can include marriage or other significant relationship break-ups, losing a job, experiencing domestic violence or suffering an illness. Families may be able to recover from one or two life shocks, but when they face several in short succession, they can be “pushed over the edge.” Not having sufficient resources as a buffer from life shocks was seen as a considerable risk factor.

Fundamental causes are the underlying reasons why a family has insufficient resources to begin with, often throughout generations. Factors brought up in discussion were inadequate education; social welfare system shortcomings; long-term unemployment; unstable jobs; excessive debt; lack of savings; poor decision-making and low wages. It is notable that this list contains both “individualistic” and “structural” elements—where either families themselves or social, political and economic systems respectively are seen as responsible for poor outcomes. While participants of the discussions tended towards either end of this spectrum, there was once again agreement that both are at play.

“Both [individual and structural] are there, of course. The system sets the boundaries and the rules of society within which the individual must operate.”

One point of agreement was around poverty as an intergenerational problem, transmitted through these fundamental causes. Parents leave their children with an inheritance—good or bad. Almost everyone highlighted that, deep down, most parents want the best for their children.[7] This motivation in parents to give their kids a better chance in life than they likely had themselves was identified as one of the most powerful “tools” to harness and break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage.

“Ultimately, it is the parents who set the expectations and mindset for their kids.”


Just as we heard that there is no one cause or consequence of poverty, we also heard there is no one solution—unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet.” Perspectives and tensions on causes and consequences—between poverty as cause or symptom—flowed through to policy solutions.

Some argued that if a lack of resources is truly the problem, then more resources is the solution. If families have sufficient resources, they will no longer be mired in poverty, and we can then direct our attention to other issues affecting families.

“Money isn’t the only problem, but a big part of the problem…If we can eliminate poverty then a lot of social problems will theoretically reduce. Then we could focus on particular issues, improving the health system if health problems persisted, for example.”

Others, particularly those working with vulnerable families, argued that dealing with the problems that families are facing should come before the provision of resources. We heard several stories of families with issues like debt, addiction and relational breakdown that were the result not of insufficient resources but of traumatic childhoods where emotional scarring had not been overcome. Deal with these root causes and “heal families where they are broken” first and then more traditional pathways to well-being like education and employment will follow, it was argued. The organisation that shared these stories walks beside these families for several years, as it takes that long for relationships and trust to build for sustainable change.

Whether New Zealand should enact poverty-specific legislation to encourage action and accountability was a hotly contested question as well. Some argued that it wasn’t a perfect solution, but it does provide a framework and improves coordination within government. Others warned that a target may negate community responsibility by focusing entirely on government response, and would take significant time and resources for an outcome that is unclear.

“Legislation is a vehicle for good intentions, but that’s not the same things as good results.”

A large focus of discussion was on the role of government and other institutions in society. There was a broad consensus that while government is doing a decent job at alleviating poverty, all levels of society need to work better together for long-lasting, transformational change. We heard consistently that policy must be integrated and co-ordinated both within government and across sectors. As poverty is a societal problem, everybody, including those classified as poor, have a role to play.

“A lot of good work gets done in government, but it still struggles to reach and help the bottom five percent. There is something about the way the state sector operates that it doesn’t give the resources to those most in need. We need to recognise that information lives outside the building and harness relationships and local knowledge.”

Another shift of focus suggested by participants was to discern and promote success. We consistently speak of deficits and negatives, but rarely do we look at the success stories and positives.

This shift from the negative to the positive is a pertinent one to conclude this section on reflections. Despite the countless challenges raised, there is a real sense of hope, passion and tenacity among those in the sector to do better for struggling families, both now and in the future. These challenges are significant, but not insurmountable. It is in this spirit that we offer our recommendations, informed in part by the conversations recorded here.

“We’ve had the same debate for decades, instead we need to flip the poverty debate upside down and focus on those who’ve risen up from poverty.”

This is an extract from Kieran’s research series “The Heart of Poverty | Defining and Measuring What it Means to be Poor in New Zealand” Policy Paper. (Released 2015) 




[1] While we didn’t directly hear from those in poverty, we deeply value their input. Later phases of this project will incorporate insights and share the stories of those in or at risk of poverty.
[2] For more on ideology as it relates to poverty, see: K. Madden, “The Heart of Poverty: Matching passion with precision,” (Maxim Institute, 2014), 5-6.
[3] K. Madden, “The Heart of Poverty: Matching passion with precision,” 15.
[4] For further reading about how a lack of material resources may cause other poor outcomes, see K. Cooper & K. Stewart, “Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes?” (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2013), 39.
[5] For more on the distinction between immediate and fundamental causes, see Expert Advisory Group, “Working Paper no.3: What causes child poverty? What are the consequences? An economic perspective” (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2012).
[6] On life shocks, see Jensen et. al, “New Zealand Living Standards 2004 – An Overview” (Ministry of Social Development, 2004), 8-9, 22.
[7] Recent qualitative research conducted by SuPERU reinforced that this is “core value” for the vast majority of low-income families surveyed. The other two core values that emerged were: “putting family before income” and a “belief that there were more important things in life than money.” SuPERU, “Perceptions of Income Adequacy by Low Income Families” (2015), 22.

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