People are still trying to pretend that English’s “social investment” is a new idea, and that it is somehow a “problem” for Labour. Audrey Young:
Social investment a dilemma for Labour
The dilemma has been what to say about it. Until now Labour has said very little.
When it was just a name attached to a concentrated effort to reduce the number of teenage mothers on a social welfare benefit there was not much to be said. But it is much more than that now. It is an approach about early intervention based on abundant data that is at the core of Government decision-making about social spending. It is also an approach that National has commandeered as its own and is increasingly using as part of its political branding in this election year.
[Ardern] “It is an idea that pre-dates social investment and it is one that is simply common sense.”
She is right that early intervention has been an integral part of Labour’s approach. To use the lingo, Labour “invested” heavily in early childhood education when it was last in Government.
What differentiates social investment from early intervention is its greater reliance on data to calculate future liabilities to the taxpayer in actuarial terms, to identify people through risk predictors who might be a problem, apply a fix if it has been shown to work, and measure the result. It is targeting to the nth degree and yet the one debate that has barely surfaced from the social investment approach is about targeting. The whole approach is premised on the assumption that targeting is positive and that even more precise targeting is even more positive.
Targeting versus universality was a major issue during the reforms of the late 80s and early 90s when greater targeting was introduced by Labour and National, including the abolition of the universal child benefit in 1991. Only New Zealand Superannuation survived in the broad welfare system.
The targeting debate appears to be over. The main argument now, in the context of social investment, appears to be how far is too far.
The concerns primarily centre around data and whether extreme targeting stigmatises those who become the subject of intervention. At the other end of the scale, there are concerns about who falls through the crack when risk predictors are used to identify targets for state-funded intervention. …
I wrote about how “social investment” is just repackaged “targeted welfare”: Spinning ‘social investment’. To repeat myself, of course no one is going to be opposed to targeting welfare spending where it will be most effective (here’s Labour advisor Rob Salmond writing in support). The difference is that the political left (which created social welfare) take a genuinely constructive approach, and the political right (which has always opposed welfare) is adopting some clever spin to justify reduced spending.
For other commentary, a recent Fabians presentation by Michael Cullen and Mike O’Brien:
Menace of social investment
The government has called its framework of social policy and austerity ‘the social investment approach’! It assumes current settings of economic policy and social outcomes must be held too but interventions can be taken when pressure builds for tweaks and minimal spending to save future costs. We do not respond to a housing crisis with a building programme. We do not alleviate poverty, we respond to vulnerable children by uplifting the child and let the parents flounder. …
Toby Manhire writes:
Bill English’s social investment strategy raises big questions
But as we charge down the data-bedazzled path of evidence-based social policy, there are more than a few reasons to take pause.
The social investment dawn follows the deluge of information that has become available – and crunchable – in recent years. The Dunedin longitudinal study, especially, has provided a wealth of evidence to recreate the Aristotlean “give me a child at seven” maxim in spreadsheet form.
Now, though, it’s “give me a child at three”. Last year a report based on the study and New Zealand government data, published in Nature: Human Behaviour, found that tests of brain health in children as young as three could identify those individuals likelier to in future “account for a disproportionate share of costly service use across a society’s health care, criminal justice and social welfare system”.
That’s great, but also: gulp. Who’s for a team screening of Minority Report? Are we OK with a 45 minute test on every three-year-old’s brain health to pick out the ones that are likely to be liabilities? Consider, by the way, the way that study was presented in the mainstream press: “Future criminals revealed at age three” – a headline as wrong as it is unsurprising.
Beyond the potential of stigma, there are a bunch of other reasons to tread carefully on the road to the data Damascus. English says that vast amounts of social spending have historically been wasted, having had no impact on outcomes.
But can we be so sure about that? We can’t measure everything after all. And while it clearly makes sense to target the most at-risk, might chucking everything into that basket mean neglecting a wider focus on welfare or opportunity or social mobility?
“Social investment” is in many ways just a warmer, fuzzier rebrand of what policy wonks have called the “forward liability investment model”. Does a fixation on minimising future expenditure, while overlooking enhancements in welfare, create a distorted picture?
Are we always measuring the right things, measuring it correctly, asking the right questions of the data? Might we miss institutional biases? Is there a danger, in the phrase of self-described data nerd Keith Ng, of treating data as a magic lamp that gives us whatever we ask for? What about the implications of outsourcing? Everyone OK with the prospect of eager private contractor Serco as your local social investment banker?
That’s a lot of questions. Sorry about that. But given the magnitude of the vision the government is promising it seems fair enough to ask. …
Directing welfare spending where it will do most good makes sense. But let’s make sure that that is what it is, not an excuse to simply cut funding, stigmatise, and target “undesireables”. National’s record does not inspire confidence, to say the very least. Never mind the hypocrisy of being all over data if they can use if for beneficiary bashing, and desperate to ignore it when it comes to the environment, the housing crisis, their failed education policies, and so on.
For other takes on why the English version of “social investment” should be treated with deep suspicion see Shamubeel Eaqub reported in Data-driven social welfare policy lacks humanity – economist, and Keith Ng in I’m a data nerd and a data cheerleader, but still I fear Bill English’s datatopia, and…
1. Tear your eyes away from Trump truth & read this-social investment as a chilling misuse of longitudinal research https://t.co/sSoN3jbxsw
— Bronwyn Hayward (@BMHayward) January 11, 2017