The Rise of the Supernanny State

Suppernanny State

Two of the most fashionable ideas in social policy thinking are coming together — conditional welfare and early childhood intervention. Together they’ll create a new supernanny state that fights crime, prevents teenage pregnancy, lifts employment and leaps rigorous cost-benefit tests in a single bound… or at least that’s the theory.

For years, welfare payments have been conditional on searching for work and showing up to welfare-to-work programs. But over the past decade, politicians have been thinking more laterally. Labor’s Craig Emerson, for example, argues that family payments ought to be conditional on children’s school attendance. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trialling a program that pays parents for attending parent-teacher conferences and children for passing exams (Bloomberg’s trial has philanthropic funding). Increasingly, government money for parents will come with strings attached.

At the same time, policy experts are becoming less convinced about the value of welfare-to-work programs and more convinced of the value of early childhood interventions. The economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman has played a major role in this shift. He argues that while education and training programs for low income adults aren’t effective enough to justify the cost, well designed and well targeted early childhood interventions are. In a recent paper with Dimitriy Masterov he writes that:

… it makes sense to invest in young children from disadvantaged environments. Substantial evidence shows that these children are more likely to commit crime, have out-of-wedlock births and drop out of school. Early interventions that partially remediate the effects of adverse environments can reverse some of the harm of disadvantage and have a high economic return. They benefit not only the children themselves, but also their children, as well as society at large (pdf).

Heckman’s argument is economic. While investing in disadvantaged children might be justified on the grounds of fairness or social justice, Heckman argues that it can be justified on cost-benefit grounds alone. Not only do the children get a larger slice of pie when they grow up, but the pie itself gets bigger (or ‘higher’ as George W would say).

In the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently convened a national summit to talk about the Democrats’ new childhood agenda. Heckman was the keynote speaker and his research set the tone for the event. "We know that these investments in our children today pay off manyfold in later years. It makes good economic sense. It is also the right thing to do," said Pelosi in her opening remarks.

Early childhood intervention is a hot issue in the policy community. And it’s also an issue that the public connects with — particularly when it’s linked to crime prevention. In a UK poll 55% of respondents said that "better parenting" would do most to prevent crime. Not long after, Tony Blair announced a network of parenting experts to "help families who are showing signs of anti-social behaviour." The media immediately dubbed them ‘supernannies.’

The Blair government also announced new programs for parents:

Parenting programmes and classes are highly effective in helping parents manage their children’s behaviour better, leading both to a reduction in bad behaviour and improved family relationships.

Where parents are reluctant to get help, or where they deny that they and their children have problems, more formal steps can be used. Parenting contracts and orders can be imposed to get parents to accept responsibility for their child’s behaviour.

It’s not difficult to see how the separate strands might come together. Fighting crime, getting tough on welfare recipients and helping children learn are all popular measures. The opportunity to bundle them together is just too tempting.

The first step is to make income support payments to parents conditional. The second step is to provide early childhood interventions in disadvantaged areas. The third step is to link the two together so that participation becomes mandatory for income support recipients. Then, for better or worse, the supernanny state will have arrived.

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Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Don

To me it looks like this sort of program will be a failure. How do you intervene in a home where there is high level abuse in all sorts of ways, drinking, physical and hope to make any difference at all?

Possibly the most intense welfare experiment ever experienced in the western world was right in Sydney – The Block. There were truckloads of cash thrown in both by government welfare agencies and private donations. What did it get us?

I think it is far better and cheaper simply acccepting a certain level of social dysfunction and be done with it. It would certainly save us a lot of wasted dollars.

It’s not a crticism of your thiking here, as i think you’re trying to mend some broken candles. I’m merely expressing an opinion.

I think we’re trowing in more money to a problem that can’t be fixed.

Deus Ex Macintosh
Deus Ex Macintosh
14 years ago

As a welfare recipient this kind of thing makes my skin crawl. The implication seems to be that anyone accepting state assistance is now to be considered “disfunctional” and in need of intervention. There have been some successes with community teams in the UK which intervene when children become part of the criminal justice system and liaise with local schools but there isn’t cirrently a central mechanism to link the sets of data normally. In the UK councils already have the legal right to spy on people receiving benefits and obtain details of their bank account activity in the name of “fraud prevention”. But as someone on the other end, I fail to understand why the extent of my civil rights are determined by the source of my income. Instead of providing temporary financial relief they now seem to be saying “the fact you have accepted welfare means you are an economic failure and now have to be managed”. It might help if someone actually analysed the turnover of welfare applications to discover what proportion is really made up of the supposedly antisocial long-termers.

conrad
conrad
14 years ago

I agree with you JC,

I think the problem with some government’s ideas on this matter is that think they should go into the poorest crappiest neighborhoods and find the dumbest kids to help (this is what happens to me where I work in France now and then — you can imagine what the public service is like there — its full of hard left socialists and communists). Its almost impossible to help these kids meaningfully, and people are biased by reading all these reports about how well programs work — they don’t read all the null-effects where people have done studies and found nothing (they of course don’t get published). If they wanted to help kids, they should pick poor ones of normal IQ from functional families (not very hard to find), but for some reason everyone wants to help the worst of the worst. The simplest solution to this would just be to allow these kids to move to schools not in their neighborhood rather than trying to run special programs.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

I used to have the same reaction as Deus Ex to this sort of agenda. I still believe it often hides nasty motives (basically, the desire to control other people and the desire for social uniformity) and that there is a real danger of creeping fascism. However, I’m now willing to venture a little onto this slippery slope.

Clearly here are some children who just never get a chance in life, and I’d be happy to pay a bit in both cash and liberty to remedy a little of that. But I’d stridently oppose attempts to make the state dictate how parents deal with their kids in the great majority of cases – even welfare cases.

Oh, and Conrad there’s no evidence of publication bias in the early childhood studies (there have been a number of meta-studies that inter alia look for it). We’re talking about early development here, where (pace that fool Murray) individual IQ is not yet determined. In fact, if you hold to the “womb with a view” position (Google it) you’d spend some of the money on fetuses (or a proxy for them – their pregnant mother).

That said, of course there will be a vast difference in outcomes between well and poorly designed programs. And it’s true that micromanaging governments focused on the culture wars will ruin any program with the term “education” in it (I can just see how disadvantaged preschoolers will benefit from learning about our heroes at Gallipoli – not).

conrad
conrad
14 years ago

DD,

you are completely off the mark if you think there is no publication bias in early childhood studies. These studies come out in four main forms,
psychological , educational, economic, and governmental (some sort of mega-hybrid). Most of the economic ones typically use the other studies as their basis, so they are not relevant. As for the other three, its almost impossible to get null-effects published in the first two of these two areas (we did a big study that found no real results and therefore can’t conclude our program does or does not work — perhaps we were just sloppy experimentors), and governments have a bias to make sure that studies that don’t work also don’t find the light of day (we spent millions of dollars on a study that didn’t work). A lot of the positive results reporeted also look like advertisements for companies (like most of the Fast Forword studies).

I guess another way to look at this is there are many governments concerned about these sorts of issues. Many of them run studies looking at these sorts of programs (probably most), and most probably have been for years (the 3 countries I have worked certainly do). How many reports have you ever seen on the efficacy of these studies that report null effects? How many have you ever actually seen from these agencies? How many do you think have been run?

As for intelligence — a lot of this is arguable (I think a lot of Murray’s stuff is crazy, incidentally), but if you can work out ways to significantly help kids of extremely low IQ on things like literacy and reading in primary school years (say around 75 at 6 years), then that would be a great find. Alternatively, if you got some gains helping kids of normal IQ, I wouldn’t be very surprised.

observa
observa
14 years ago

Next thing you know all the experts and all the kings horses and all the kings men will come to the conclusion my parents and grandparents did. You see neglect and abuse and you simply take the children away from it all. We’ve run out of Christian missionaries for the task nowadays, but Wahabbists seem to have picked up the idea quite well, by all accounts.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Don,

I agree with you that conditional child support is going to come. As someone who’s advocated variants of this in several fora I’d like to point out that it has less to do with the government controlling people’s lives, but more to do with society demanding that it gets something for the money it hands out. The ultimate logic of these interventions – paying people on welfare to raise well-adapted and smart kids – does not seem that bad, does it? The alternative would seem to be to dismantle the welfare state, which is worse.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Paul – So what’s next… conditional Medicare?

“Sorry Mr B but this is the third time you’ve failed to follow my directions about diet and exercise. If you need a heart bypass you’ll have to pay for it yourself.”

Just Me
Just Me
14 years ago

“The ultimate logic of these interventions – paying people on welfare to raise well-adapted and smart kids – does not seem that bad, does it?”

So, will there be comparable interventions to those who do a crap job of raising their kids using money sourced through conventional employment? How does the source of the money make any difference to the required standards of child rearing? The underlying assumption seems to be that those on welfare are somehow less competent, and possibly less moral, as parents, and hence must be in need of more supervision (and punitive obligations) than the rest. And exactly where does this welfare line stop? Does it include all those fully employed but still taking middle class welfare, such as the baby bonus, etc?

And that is before we even get in to looking closely at the standard you have proposed: “well-adapted and smart kids”. Not all kids are going to reach this standard, even under the best of conditions.

A real minefield you are entering here. The usual pick on the weakest nonsense.

James Farrell
14 years ago

The medical example is not nearly as preposterous as you intend to make it sound, Don. Private insurance is already more expensive for smokers and trapeze artists; and doctors engaged on a private basis can refuse to treat patients who refuse follow their instructions. There is no inherent reason public sector could not adopt this approach in a limited fashion. There is nothing wrong with your pointing out the danger that conditional benefits can be harnessed as instruments of illiberal coercion, but it’s hard to argue with you if you’re going to feign incomprehension at every argument in favour of conditions. This probably seems banal, but it’s a matter of balance, isn’t it?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

James – I’m interested in what people find preposterous and what they don’t.

Many people seem happy to make ‘welfare’ benefits more conditional but think that it’s preposterous to make family tax benefit, drought relief or Medicare conditional.

I think Just Me understands why:

The underlying assumption seems to be that those on welfare are somehow less competent, and possibly less moral, as parents

What if we were to make access to government funding for primary and secondary education conditional on ‘competent’ parenting? So if your teenager gets picked up at 2 in the morning on a school night you might have to pay the full cost of education for a term.

Naturally education would remain compulsory. Parents without assets (eg equity in a house), or who could demonstrate that the fees would cause financial harship, could apply for an income contingent loan.

This could be justified by Paul’s principle — the government getting value for its investment. If parents don’t manage their teenagers so that they get adequate sleep, then how are they going to get the full benefit from the government’s investment in teaching?

How do we decide where to draw the line? What are the normative principles and what empirical assumptions are we making?

Backroom Girl
14 years ago

I think Paul is right in thinking that the general taxpaying public prefers to know that the money that is being paid out in income support is being put to good use. We’ve never had a problem with making unemployment benefits conditional on people looking for work, doing things to improve their employability, etc.

Over the years, there has been a trend to seeing other income support payments as not just compensation for misfortune (being a single parent), but as a payment in return for some (socially approved) activity. Hence the name change from Sole Parent Pension to Parenting Payment, for example. In light of this trend, I think it was inevitable that people would begin to ask questions about what the people being paid for parenting were actually doing in return for their payment.

That said, I’m not in favour of policies that treat all parents on welfare as deficient – it is the major problem I have with what the Government is doing with welfare payments in the NT. But I’m not opposed to some level of heavy suasion (if not outright compulsion) being applied to the minority of parents who, on some objective assessment, are not meeting their children’s basic needs.