There are parallel conversations going on in social policy, says Matt Cowgill, "Values on one level, data another". How values and data interact is an interesting question.
A decade ago, I was researching the debate over poverty. In 2003 the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs held an inquiry into poverty and small government activists and conservatives like Peter Saunders at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) were keen to make sure there was no increase in income support payments or easing up on mutual obligation requirements.
The anti-anti-poverty activists on the right were playing a defensive game. They made sure their opponents had to fight every step of the way from definition of the problem to policy response. And in the process they helped lay bare the structure of public problems.
The first step is to define the problem. The CIS argued that "Any definition of poverty is arbitrary and reflects the value judgements of those who develop it". While many people will accept they should defer to experts on issues of fact, most do not feel any need to defer on issues of value. So with this move, the CIS is saying that non-experts are entitled to form their opinion on what poverty is.
This forces the debate to the next step — arguing about why we should care about poverty as social scientists define it. The CIS argued that the problem social scientists and the welfare lobby were really concerned about was inequality. That’s why social scientists defined poverty in terms of relative income. This forced social scientists to have an argument about values — an argument where they couldn’t appeal to their status as experts.
Anti-poverty campaigns usually rely on statistics that show the problem is bad and getting worse. So the next step is to discredit the measurement of poverty. The CIS’s Peter Saunders had a long list of reasons the data couldn’t be trusted. For example, he argued that the Australian Bureau of Statistics itself said that data on the bottom 10% of the income distribution was unreliable.
If social scientists and anti-poverty activists still refused to give up, the next argument was about the causes of poverty. The CIS’s Lucy Sullivan argued that the real cause of deprivation was the welfare state. Easy access to welfare handouts meant that too many children were growing up in jobless single parent households and growing up without learning norms of chastity, thrift, industriousness and personal responsibility. Researchers in universities tended to assume this issue had been settled early last century and were surprised to see scholarly looking publications from US, UK and Australian think tank researchers being taken seriously.
If a lack of personal responsibility and adherence to social norms was the cause of the problem this raised another issue for debate. Who was morally responsible for solving the problem? This was another values debate where social science expertise had little authority. So even if researchers could show large numbers of people living in hardship, policymakers and members of the public felt entitled to ask whether this was really the taxpayers’ responsibility.
So by the time we got to debating the policy response, it wan’t at all clear what the solution was. According to people like Peter Saunders, the best policy response was much tougher mutual obligation requirements on jobless welfare recipients. In time mutual obligations would extend to parents sending their children to school and debate would move onto issues like income management.
The war over poverty was fought with arguments about both facts and values. In many cases it difficult to prise them apart. If the definition of poverty was shot through with value judgements, then so too was the data and theories about causation. And for many policymakers the problem shifted from poverty to welfare dependence. That suggested a whole range of new policy responses.