Making a life-choice: the PM and vulnerable kids

The government is making some interesting choices about what to get done before the election and what to leave till after: KiwiSaver cuts legislated within hours of the Budget; rescuing “vulnerable children” delayed to next year.

It is making some interesting choices about whom it attends to: yes, sir, to more gambling licences for longer for Sky City in exchange for a convention centre (gambling and conventions make profits); wait in line, to vulnerable children (they are a cost).

One is on the revenue side of the budget: more visitors, more tax (by the way, a significant departure from the post-1984 rule against responding to self-interested special pleading by companies). The other is on the spending side, remedying “poor life choices” by not-care-givers.

Paula Bennett, solo parent made good, is genuinely bothered by these life choices. She made disadvantaged children her top priority when she became Social Development Minister and repeated that in her introduction to her “green paper” on vulnerable children, issued on Wednesday.

Launching the green paper, she said: “Too many children are being hurt, abused, neglected and badly let down but we can change this and now is time to act.”

She said the issue was “bigger than politics” and to prove it even used some Labour language, saying her paper focused on “child-centred” decisions.

She also said it was “bigger than electoral cycles” but set end-February 2012 as the submission cutoff date. “Now”, in short, is next year. Then she intends to issue a white paper with her decisions. So any action will be well through 2012.

There are two reasons for delay.

One is a conservative wariness within the cabinet. Some family-centred ministers, including influential ones, are concerned not to disable parents through too-heavy intervention.

The other is that action in this area is still seen by most ministers as “spending”, not “investment”. There is some senior-level behind-scenes rethinking. But for the most part a cabinet which cut outlays on innovation in the 2011 Budget, even though innovation is investment in future output, is not yet hard-wired to extend the concept of investment to rescuing children from (quoting Bennett) “being hurt, abused, neglected and badly let down”.

That is despite this blunt statement by John Key’s reappointed chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, at the launch: “The core science is unequivocal — experiences as a foetus, infant and child have lasting influences … both for the individual and for the next generation beyond that.”

This is usually thought of as bad luck: a pity the child got the wrong progenitors.

It is actually bad economics.

Kids who get a bad start, it is well documented, don’t get as much out of school as others, are more likely to go off the rails as teenagers and to have mental health deficiencies, less likely to become productive taxpayers and more likely to cost citizens and taxpayers heavily through crime.

The earlier the investment the higher the monetary return.

Trying much later to fix up a drug-damaged 25-year-old who is already damaging children of his/her own is expensive and difficult and less assured of a good return.

Sir Peter, who chaired an “independent scientific review” of the paper, issued some important qualifiers. Defining which children merit intervention is not simple. There is no single magic intervention. There is too much “rhetoric, dogma and ideology” and there have been too many well-meaning but ineffective actions. Defining a child as “vulnerable” and climbing into the child’s life can itself be damaging. How is targeting some children with expensive help to be reconciled with the “egalitarian ethos”?

And, he said, though “decisions are urgent”, a “reflective rather than reflexive response over the next 12 months” is needed. Translated: good policy, not good politics.

Politically, there is good reason to push this past the election. Rescuing kids is a lot less ear-catching than bashing the kid-bashers and kid-neglecters. Science-based policy is a lot less attractive politics than instinct and anger.

A second political reason for delay is cost. Sir Peter said effective intervention is expensive. But the paper says that action “may not need more government money”. There are many references to prioritisation. The clear message is that not much, if any, more taxpayer money will be spent on this “urgent” cause.

Key underlines that in his “frontispiece”: “Just throwing more money around will not improve the lives of these children.”

Yet Key says he wants his legacy as Prime Minister to be what he does for such children. This stems in part from his own state-house sojourn.

Come next autumn, when officials have trawled the submissions, he will have the basis to make a start on his legacy. He, Sir Peter and Bennett will have the opportunity to do some world-leading stuff. That’s as big a second-term life-choice as any Prime Minister could ask voters for on November 26.