Social investment alone won’t cure troubled lives

Targeting ‘at risk’ individuals and families is not a substitute for a plan to reduce poverty and deprivation, writes Michael O'Brien

The idea and language of social investment is being used increasingly to develop government social policy in health, education, care and protection of children, mental health and housing, and in funding decisions for not-for-profits working in these and other areas. But social investment is not a cure-all and its weaknesses must be acknowledged along with the common denominator that often links troubled lives - poverty

The term social investment has had a number of different descriptions and uses, but the central idea is the use of evidence and information to target government resources to get the best results. It is about using data to assess risk factors and understand the statistical links between these risk factors and later outcomes in people’s lives.

Those at risk of poor outcomes are identified by using data drawn from a range of government agencies and statistical sources. The major risks that have been identified as leading to poor outcomes include receiving a benefit for the majority of a child’s life, limited formal education, a parent having a prison sentence and a confirmed notification of child abuse. Poor outcomes linked to these risks include lack of a school qualification, a prison sentence, being a sole parent before age 20, extended time on a benefit and adolescent referral for offending.

Organisations and professionals working in fields such as health, social services and education would then target their services to those individuals and their families. There is also increasing pressure and expectation that data will also be provided by non-government organisations funded by government. While some of the decisions about this have been delayed following a range of concerns expressed by agencies, the government has made it clear this is certainly the route they want to go down.

At first sight, the idea of giving priority to children and families appears both common sense and a practical use of money and skilled professional time. Who would not want outcomes to be better for these children and their families? However, as is often the case, apparently simple questions do not always have simple answers. There are some very important questions about both the approach itself and the information on which the social investment approach is based.

People are not just statistics. They live their lives in family and community relationships which statistics can’t always capture, and our health, social and education programmes are only successful if they work with all of these factors.

Work done on the data shows the statistical link between the risks and outcomes is not as strong as the statements suggest. To summarise, some of those who are at risk don’t have poor outcomes, and some of those who have poor outcomes are not identified as being at risk. In other words, the link between risk and outcome is, prima facie, quite messy and complicated. The result of this lack of a strong statistical link is that some of those who need services will not receive them, and some of those who would be identified as needing supervision and services would not in fact need them. This is both unnecessarily intrusive as far as families and individuals are concerned and not a very efficient or effective way of using resources – an outcome which is quite ironic given that efficient use of resources has been presented as one of the major justifications for the development of the investment approach.  

There is another very important limitation and weakness. Social investment is an approach in which children and their families face the very real possibility of being judged and stigmatised because of being identified as ‘at risk’ of failure. In recent years there has been great concern about the stigma that arises from the decile system school funding. The social investment approach, as currently promoted, carries many of the worst features of this stigma and is arguably worse because it is individuals who will be identified, not communities.

Furthermore, people are not just statistics. They live their lives in family and community relationships which statistics can’t always capture, and our health, social and education programmes are only successful if they work with all of these factors. Having good data is useful and important, and achieving good outcomes matters, but it must be seen as a supplement to other information – it is not a panacea and cannot replace good judgments and strong relationships.

Reviewing all the information available, there is a strong relationship between risk factors, poor outcomes and poverty. This link has been either missed or deliberately ignored, but the work on the data makes this very clear. The areas and regions in which there is high risk and poor outcomes are the areas in which there is high poverty and deprivation. This indicates very clearly that the critical factors needing attention are the levels of poverty and improving the circumstances and situation of individuals, communities, children and families. Reducing poverty for both beneficiaries and those in paid work will make a significant impact on both risk and poor outcomes. Targeting ‘at risk’ individuals and families is not a substitute for a plan to reduce poverty and deprivation.

‘Investing’ in the wellbeing of New Zealanders is not hard to support. The difficulty is that the current approach does not do that and, arguably, is the very antithesis of sensible development and creation of the decent society we talked about two decades ago. If we are serious about investing to ensure the best outcomes for all then we, as a society, must invest in programmes that promote and support the interests of all, not programmes that target a small number of disadvantaged and deprived individuals and families. And further, we must also give serious thought to an unsettling and unresolved question – what happens when outcomes aren’t reached?

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