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Poverty and “kids these days”

When it comes to humans, one-size-fits-all descriptions rarely cut it. While there is often a kernel of truth in generalisations like “Gen-Y,” the ethos of an entire generation cannot be captured in a few words. Thankfully, good research can be pretty darn effective at breaking down wearying stereotypes and painting more vivid, nuanced pictures of how complex we all are.  

A good example of this is some recently-released research by Colmar Brunton youth specialist Spencer Willis. In his mission to “smash” apart “sweeping negative generalisations” about kids these days, he organised a study to understand what 15-30 year-old Kiwis that make up “Gen-Y” think is important.  From this, several groups were identified: 

  • (21%) Idealists – I’m true to myself
  • (17%) Money equals Status – what’s in it for me?; 
  • (17%) Solitary Savers – staying out of the limelight;
  • (15%) Family Focused – home and hearth
  • (16%) Ladder Climbers – going for gold; and 
  • (14%) Spontaneous Spenders – live for the now

The New Zealand Herald has some decent infographics that show the distinctions between the “tribes,” check out the link for more details on what each group values. Of particular interest here (for me at least) is the statistical technique used for this research, a method called latent class analysis (LCA). 

LCA is a mathematical model, used to identify unique groups at the intersections of certain indicators like income, aspirations or social. After identifying these groups, the researcher interprets and names them—usually something catchy to gain media attention. While Willis’ findings are interesting and help to support my claim that one-size-fits-all doesn’t provide the nuance we need, they’re probably more useful for marketing than public policy. 

What I find more interesting is a similar work that UK think tank Demos and NatCen Social Research produced a few years ago. They used similar LCA techniques to create “child poverty types”. Indicators like housing quality, family support and employment were examined and the following groups were found: 

  • (31%) Grafters;
  • (22%) Full house families;
  • (21%) Pressured parents;
  • (18%) Vulnerable mothers; and 
  • (8%) Managing mothers.

Once again, there are some great infographics available on the Demos website that show more at a glance than a multitude of words can. Interestingly, Pensioner and Childless working-age profiles were also created. They also went a step further, two steps even, by: 

a) interviewing people in the five child poverty groups to better understand the dynamics involved and their lived experience; and 

b) creating a toolkit so that local authorities could tailor their responses to the groups most prevalent in their area. For more on the methodology of this study see here.   

Like Gen-Y, the “poor” are not one big identical group. But the kind of work that Demos has done in differentiating groups in poverty hasn’t yet been replicated in New Zealand. Yes we can say that everyone with an income below a certain level is poor, but what is life like for those living below the line? Are there common patterns of behaviour? How do different indicators interact and overlap? The regular suspects of family structure, ethnicity and age can only take us so far. We need better data for better outcomes. 

Understanding poverty is an important first step in helping poor families. Maxim Institute is soon to release a research paper that discusses how we might identify and measure poverty in New Zealand. We would love to hear your feedback when it comes out, to help shape our continuing work in this area. 

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