Children of the lucky country

This week’s column is on the subject of the book “Children of the lucky country” the state of children. It speaks for itself I guess, though of course in a column format one doesn’t have sufficient space to spell everything out.

Suffice it to say that as I read the book it seemed to me that a dimension was missing. As I read further and thought more it seemed that something like a conjuring trick was being played with the word ‘disadvantage’. What does it mean to say that the myriad problems of youth follow a ‘gradient of disadvantage’?

The fact is that a lot of the problems bunch together and appear to be the result of tolerance of anti-social and irresponsible behaviour. And the perpetuation of irresponsible and anti-social behaviour will disadvantage the communities in which it occurs. The language of disadvantage shoehorns the discussion into an old and dated groove. Yes, those who do so acknowledge that it’s not all material disadvantage there’s ‘social disadvantage’ as well. But that looks a bit like a trick to me it redefines the problem to look like the old problem that the welfare state was invented to address.

These problems are at least to some extent products of the welfare state. That doesn’t lead me to want to get rid of the welfare state. But it does lead me to want to talk about ‘social breakdown’ rather than ‘social disadvantage’. The former term suggests the solution might be at least in part encouraging but also demanding higher standards of behaviour in such communities. The latter term suggests victims who just need more help.

On page 215 the authors say this.

[P]roblems such as low birth weight, ear infections in Aboriginal children, obesity and exposure to violence in their home have their root causes in poverty and inequality, poor and overcrowded housing, poor education, unemployment, and inadequate community resources to support parents with mental health problems or addictions and other major stresses.

Now, as I suggest in the column, I have no problem with governments spending more dealing with these issues. But it seems to me that it would be better to think of these issues as issues of self-perpetuating ‘social breakdown’ with inequality being the unhappy consequence rather than as rooted in material inequality as the authors suggest. The fact is that some inequality (for instance amongst many migrant communities) sorts itself out within a generation and other inequality doesn’t. I don’t think more money will do much at all if it isn’t coupled with insistence on individual and community responsibility, and strenuous attempts to do everything possible to resist anti-social behaviour.

Anyway, here’s the column.

Not so lucky

Christmas celebrates a child’s birth. It’s still mainly a children’s affair. But might the effort we put into helping our kids celebrate Christmas help us forget how well we’re protecting their interests?

Of course some things have improved. We’re more aware of safety. Swimming pools are fenced. Child abuse isn’t swept under the carpet nearly so much. And scientific advance has eliminated most death and disability from lots of childhood diseases like polio.

But there’s plenty to worry about. On being made Australian of the year in 2003 Fiona Stanley did all she could to tell us. Now she’s co-authored a book The Children of the Lucky Country with two other distinguished Australian women, economics professor Sue Richardson of Adelaide’s National Institute for Labour Studies, and Margot Prior, professor of psychology at Melbourne University.

The book acknowledges our progress but shows how, despite strong economic growth, we’re failing our children. I don’t think they’re arguing against the growth we’d be even worse without it. But it’s a reminder, if one were needed, that growth is not enough.

Childhood obesity, diabetes, asthma, autism and Downs syndrome have all increased. And kids’ psychological health is nothing to write home about.

Suicide rates for males aged 15 to 24 rose fourfold between the 1960s and the late 1990s (though with greater policy and community vigilance, they’re at last falling sharply). Psychological professionals are reporting increases in ‘difficult-to-treat’ psychological problems, like delinquency, aggressive behaviour, depression and drug abuse.

Girls are catching up to boys in aggressive behaviour and are already ahead of them in binge drinking. Of children 12-15 years old, 16 percent of boys binge drink whilst the figure for girls is 20 percent (up from 11 and 14 percent respectively in 1984). 38 percent of them obtain their grog from their parents!

That’s plenty of food (or drink!) for thought. The cause of some of the problems like asthma remain a mystery. Others like increases in Downs syndrome children arise from women waiting longer to have babies. But many of the most worrying maladies follow what the authors call a ‘gradient of disadvantage’ the lower a community’s socio-economic status, the more prevalent its problems.

The gradient of disadvantage is strongest for many of the worst problems. Take ‘fetal alcohol syndrome’ produced by excessive drinking, smoking and poor nutrition during pregnancy. It’s one hundred times more prevalent amongst aborigines than other Australians, something the authors attribute to social circumstances rather than racial tolerances to alcohol.

The authors make many worthwhile recommendations, with a strong bias toward left-leaning communitarian ones. They call for much better public funding for child-care and pre-school and remedial interventions surely the best way we know of getting the safety net under children whose parents can’t or won’t meet their obligations.

But the problems we’re facing are sufficiently serious and intractable that I’d have appreciated a more fearlessly eclectic attack on our problems one that wasn’t confined so exclusively to one side of the ideological spectrum.

For instance, contrary to popular opinion, we more than doubled real school funding per pupil from 1975 to 1998 and lowered class sizes from 25 to 17 in primary schools, and from 16 to 13 in secondary schools. Yet the Australian Council of Educational Research reports that the literacy and numeracy standards of 14 year-olds in year 9 have fallen.

What we’ve gained in quantity we’ve lost in quality (of teaching and perhaps parenting at least where there’s social breakdown). To tackle these problems effectively we need the flexibility to target areas of greatest need and to reward good performance including with performance pay for teachers.

There are various institutional and ideological obstacles to such flexibility within education bureaucracies and teacher unions. But the book doesn’t discuss this.

At a deeper level I think the constant reference to problems of ‘disadvantage’ is subtly misleading. Many of the worst problems don’t stem from material disadvantage and haven’t been improved by applying greater public resources.

You can call the problems ‘social disadvantage’ but that’s just a circular redefinition. Calling it by it’s name which is social dysfunction should help us better choose remedies on their merits.

Of course social dysfunction and material disadvantage reinforce each other. But precisely because of that I want to tackle each of them simultaneously and with ideas from both the left and right of the ideological spectrum. By all means let’s redistribute income and fund local communities to relieve disadvantage. But let’s also value achievement, self-help and initiative at the individual and local community level. And as Noel Pearson argues, we need more trenchant intolerance of anti-social behaviour, however disadvantaged its perpetrators.

This concern aside, I salute Fiona Stanley and her co-authors for their passion. And for the justness of their call for us all to do what we can to create a world where every child is nurtured with the protection, encouragement, and (I’d add) the rightful authority it craves.

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Rafe
15 years ago

Right on Brother! We need to look for every point of entry to vicious circles and hope for a concatenating effect when different interventions start to support each other. The angle that gets the least attention from the well-meaning (but largely counterproductive) left is the moral dimension. That is why the moral framework is the third pillar of the liberal order, along with free trade and the rule of law. Noel Pearson picked up on this in his inspirational address to the Centre for Independent Studies last year. http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/?p=1280 . If you wonder about the reference to scout masters in my post you need to know that Greg Lindsay (fonder of CIS) he was a scout master.

Vee
Vee
15 years ago

Rafe provided a link but as some readers are unlikely to follow the link and are likely to respond “whose morals” indicating they’re subjective but Rafe’s link is a little more explicit:

“and a moral framework that includes honesty, compassion, social responsibility and civility.”

Rafe
15 years ago

Thanks Vee, that reinforces the point that I was making, that traditional moralising has focussed too much on sexual activities, often in relation to this or that religious perspective. The main effect of this was to discredit any kind of talk about mores and the importance of a robust moral framework.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

“These problems are at least to some extent products of the welfare state.”

Geez I hate that line – it’s pushed by people whose model of the good society is 19th century Britain, and accompanied by a great deal of intellectual dishonesty (Charles Murray, anyone?). There are enough problems with actually existing welfare state institutions without blaming them for things they are *not* responsible for. Are you seriously telling me there was no “irresponsible or anti-social behaviour” prior to the welfare state?

More generally, the term “irresponsible and anti-social behaviour” is largely used these days to refer to any behaviour that the speaker finds irritating, challenging to their own religious or moral code, merely different from their own lifestyle, or a convenient pretext to expand state power (vide the abuse of “antisocial behaviour orders” in the UK). In other words, it’s used by people who keenly desire to tell other people how to live. Liberals and libertarians should be deeply suspicious of it.

Rafe
15 years ago

Happy new year DD!

Do you have any objection to the items that have been suggested for the moral framework – honesty, compassion, civility, social responsiblity? And what would you and others like to add? The list was not supposed to be exhaustive.

saint
15 years ago

Belated happy new year Troppadillians. Like the new dig. And the seabed wall paper.

Nicholas I agree that there is another dimension that is centred around a moral framework or at least a healthy understanding of and application of authority (eg in encouraging respect for civil authorities, discouraging anti social behaviour), particularly for, but not exclusively for children.

It’s been a topic of discussion in Christian circles in recent years as well
(and yes, authority in Christian thought includes honesty, compassion, social responsibility and civility and not to be partial to either rich or poor in matters of justice). However, we can teach our own because we have a common understanding of all authority as being derived from the Author himself.

And while I concede that even laws, social mores tec in a secular nation-state have a moral element to them, yet laws etc in themselves are insufficient to encourage moral/civil/good social behaviour, the question is, how does one encourage, apply a ‘moral framework’ in a pluralist secular society and who can/should/does?

Hmm, I think that was a bit of a muddled comment…I guess what I am saying is. Agreed, but who, what, how?

Homer Paxton ( & would be still BBEP if not for fondness for Dr Gruen!)
Homer Paxton ( & would be still BBEP if not for fondness for Dr Gruen!)
15 years ago

Just following up Saint.

one of the reasons for the Welfare State was that Christians in government ( Bismark, Asquith,McDonald etc) knew that the poor would always be with us thus the biblical need to assist them. I assume Jews would be of a similar view.

This is always going to be a work in progress. One of the first things to do is reduce the very heavy EMTRs on people trying to go from welfare to work.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Happy new year, all. Now that I’ve got the first good spray of the new year in, maybe we can talk about “welfare dependency” more calmly.

IMO its a problem but a vastly overrated one, at least in Australia. Its vastly overrated largely because of the efforts of the sort of people I had a go at in my earlier post.

Just what is it about welfare dependency that makes it such an issue? If it’s the burden on other taxpayers, its not much of a problem at all – a few percent of GDP to keep beggars off the street and to keep children fed is excellent value. If it’s that it is bad for the *recipients* I want evidence, not the sort of hypocritical bullshit we get from the US (“we’re only punishing you for your own good”). That you think those dependent for long periods on welfare are severely disadvantaged, or even if you think them the scum of the earth, is neither here nor there – I want evidence that their disadvantage or scumminess would be less in the absence of the welfare state. And, speaking as someone who has read an awful lot of the relevant academic literature over the years, I reckon the evidence is not there.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Yes, those who do so acknowledge that it’s not all material disadvantage

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

If it’s the burden on other taxpayers, its not much of a problem at all – a few percent of GDP to keep beggars off the street and to keep children fed is excellent value.

As I understand it, the amount the Commonwealth spends on unemployment benefits is about $5 billion per annum. That is massively less than the amount the Commonwealth spends on benefits to families which are not means tested, and massively less than it loses in revenue from tax dodges that low income earners have no access to.

wmmbb
15 years ago

One possible solution might be to teach parenting in schools perhaps in a social learning frame, so that parents might be exposed to different models of parenting than a sole reliance of what they have experienced. Some disadvantage, and hence counter-productive social behavior results from the ignorance of the parents as much as lack of means.

I would reasonably expect that such intervention has been tried somewhere, and I wonder with what effect.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

I don’t disagree that defenders of the welfare state shouldn’t do so blindly. An example might be yours of adolescents having kids. If it’s true that these kids are more likely to have problems in life (and I suspect it is – though I know someone who had a child at 16 and put herself through uni and entered the full time workforce while her son was still under 5), then a $3000 baby bonus from the Government creates a very perverse incentive – particularly as I suspect a lot of teenagers would think this an enormous sum of money.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Sole parenthood is a good point to argue about, as it’s been particularly subject to propaganda, much of it from the US.

As a recent OECD report pointed out (sorry, haven’t got it at hand as I’m at home), once you standardise for the fact that sole parents are poor and that disadvantaged people tend to become sole parents, there’s little left to explain in the disadvantage of sole parents’ children – in other words, its not the sole parenthood itself that is causing the disadvantage. And the “commonsense” intuition that benefits encourage sole parenthood by making it less punitive does not survive empirical scrutiny – the highest rates of sole parenthood in the US are systematically in states with the lowest TANF payments, and the highest rates of sole parenthood in the OECD are in countries (such as the US) where support for them is lowest.

Look, I certainly believe that incentives matter, but you really have to look at *how much* they matter on an issue-by-issue basis; simply assuming that a particular incentive is the dominating force in a particular issue is not good enough.

And BTW unwanted kids were not always adopted out – there were also orphanages. The outcomes were not usually good.

Also, Mark, the sterotype of the teenage never-married single mum is in fact surprisingly rare. Less than 4% of Australian single mums are teenagers, and over 90% of Australian sole parenthood is caused by marriage (de facto or de jure) breakup.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Also, Mark, the sterotype of the teenage never-married single mum is in fact surprisingly rare. Less than 4% of Australian single mums are teenagers, and over 90% of Australian sole parenthood is caused by marriage (de facto or de jure) breakup.

Doesn’t surprise me, dd.