Posturing doesn’t help those facing poverty
“I know that’s not PC, but you know, that’s me,” said Judith Collins last week as she commented on child poverty at a police conference. Cue Metiria Turei, co-leader of the Greens, who alleged that Collins was displaying “deepest ignorance” and making “a foolish statement” because Collins reportedly had said that child poverty is “primarily” due to “a lack of [parental] responsibility.” Collins hit back, claiming that her comments were about the link between poverty and crime, and that they had been taken out of context. And so, the unedifying debate about child poverty recorded another inglorious chapter. Amid the ‘not-PC’ and ‘you’re ignorant’ and ‘that’s out of context’ posturing, the crucial question lingers—was Collins right?
Let’s check the context first. It is possible to interpret Collins’ comments as referring to the link between poverty and crime, rather than the causes of poverty, when she said that parental responsibility is a “primary” cause. If so, then her words were taken out of context, as she says. However, her earlier comments seem pretty clear: “One of the things when I look at child poverty, actually I don’t see just money or monetary poverty, I see a poverty of ideas, a poverty of parental responsibility, a poverty of love, a poverty of caring.” So giving the benefit of the doubt and setting aside the question of “primary” effect for now, do parental actions make a difference to child poverty?
The truth is that they do play a part. Parents’ actions create a context for their children that significantly shapes the children’s futures. For example, parents can influence their kids’ future when they model and transmit pro-social or anti-social behaviours and create an environment that either fosters or impedes development of cognitive ability and social and emotional skills. Parents also provide resources for their children—or at least, they’re supposed to. Not all parents do, and not all parents can, as Collins recognised. The reasons for this can be complex and varied, such as lack of education or poor health.
But it’s also true that for a family in poverty right now, simply urging parental responsibility isn’t likely to make an immediate difference to the situation. Other factors assume more short-term importance—like the adequacy of benefits and the availability of jobs. For the sake of clarity, and regardless of what Collins did or didn’t say, it should be clear by now that parental responsibility matters, but it’s one factor among many. When we’re making generalised statements about poverty, none of them can be singled out as the “primary” factor.
We need better quality debate and discussion about the pathways in and out of poverty, and last week’s posturing, sadly, wasn’t it. We need to stay focused on the people. Not by the sort of petty, ad hominem attack involved in calling your opponent “ignorant,” but by remembering that this is a debate about how to help real people in real need. That should be all the motivation we need to elevate the conversation.