As the election draws near, it’s clear that ‘welfare reform’ will be one of the main areas of discussion and debate.
It’s also, historically, an area littered with sloganesque arguments that fly around like empty cartridge shells at the OK Coral. [Apparently, in that gunfight, about 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds, which is roughly the rate at which clichés and buzz words are encountered in arguments over welfare.]
One of those slogans/clichés concerns “bad lifestyle choices”.
As ever, Gordon Campbell has done a very good analysis of the various ‘myths’ that surround the issue of welfare and its need for reform.
He notes that the statistics for the Domestic Purposes Benefit are not strongly supportive of the ‘lifestyle option’ thesis:
Since the DPB involves the care of children who are dependent at least until they are 18, you’d think it would reflect lifetime dependency very strongly. Yet instead, over two thirds of DPB recipients (67.7%) are on the DPB for less than four years. More than a quarter of them (26%) are on it for less than a year, even during the recession. If this is a lifestyle choice, it is hardly a fashionable one.
Similarly, the small number of teenage mothers on the DPB contradicts the statement by John Key that significant numbers of young women are on the benefit for a lifetime:
More to the point, the NZ figures on DPB recipients do not bear out Key’s specific assertion about ‘significant numbers of very young women going onto the DPB and staying there for a lifetime.”
In fact, only 3.1 % of those on the DPB are under 20 years of age – and that figure has barely flickered since 2005, when the figure was 2.9 %. Put another way, 97% of the people on the DPB are NOT the ‘very young women’ of Key’s lurid imagination. There are in fact, significantly more people on the DPB over 55 years of age (5.6%) than there are ‘very young women’ receiving this benefit.
The vast bulk of DPB recipients (nearly 75%) are what you would expect : they are aged between 25 and 54. Some 61% of them are caring for children six years or under – a figure that, again, has barely changed since 2005. Nearly half are caring for two or more dependent children.
Many of these women are caring for children alone because of a marriage breakdown, which is rarely a lifestyle choice.
There’s another aspect of ‘lifestyle choices’, however, that I want to focus on. To what extent do ‘outcomes’ in people’s lives tell us anything about the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decision making abilities of different people?
Choices are obviously relative to circumstances. In fact, the so-called ‘new breed’ of rational choice economists would expect nothing less.
Tim Harford’s book Logic of Life (not to be confused with Francis Jacob’s book of the same title), for example, makes a point of pointing out the unexpected rationality of behaviours that, on the surface, appear maladaptive or even the wreckage of a series of ‘bad choices’.
Whether it is the preference to engage in oral sex by young girls in America (because of the chance of getting aids and getting pregnant versus the loss of reputation) or prostitutes choosing to have unprotected sex (because of the chance of getting aids and getting pregnant versus the gain in income), in Harford’s book, it’s all very logical.
The point is simple: Behaviour isn’t a good guide to how ‘rational’ or even ‘adaptive/good’ people’s choices are. We judge choices after the fact against our society’s norms of success and failure.
Real people, however, make their choices moment by moment in a flux of circumstances – more often than not, they are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt and are responding, as economists put it, to the incentives in the situation.
But my main point is simpler yet: When you start from a very disadvantaged position, a lifetime of ‘good’ choices can lead to outcomes that – to the relatively advantaged – can appear as failures, as arising from a series of ‘bad choices’.
Similarly, when you start from a very advantaged position, a lifetime of ‘bad’ choices can lead to outcomes that – to the relatively disadvantaged – appear as successes, as arising from a series of ‘good choices’.
Let me get personal for a moment.
The high school I went to was one of the best around here. My classmates were all the sons of lawyers, chartered accountants, doctors, academics and businessmen. I was in the top class, right through high school. It hadn’t been my classmates’ choice – or mine – to be at the school. In many cases, it wasn’t their choice which subjects they took. It was their parents’ choice. They were bright enough, of course.
They were also good enough people but I remember occasions where one or other of them would go off the rails: One was caught dangerously speeding while driving four other boys at the age of 15, almost overturning the car; another punched out the lights of a teacher; several others routinely got drunk and took drugs. In each and every case they were put back onto the rails – the school and their parents were determined that the boys’ ‘bad choices’ weren’t going to interfere with their prospects.
And, they didn’t. My classmates (those whose ‘outcomes’ I’m aware of) are now mimicking their fathers’ successes – lawyers, doctors, airline pilots, chartered accountants.
I now live in a street where it is a daily experience to see men wandering along in the middle of the day. One man has his head permanently raised faceward to the sky and, as he walks his circuit, he speaks to that ever-present sky in a loud voice.
Another tall, sun-baked man limps daily to and fro past my house. The day before yesterday he crossed the street to where I was walking our dog. He was grinning from ear to ear and, as he approached, he wildly rubbed his hair with both hands and said – loudly – “I’ve gone off my trolley again! I’m a nutter – have been for 27 years. I’m off my rocker!” I chatted with him about my dog and he went on his smiling way, calmer.
The next day he walked past and said that he was off down to the Salvation Army centre to let them know they could get a DVD on the effects of psychiatric drugs by contacting “broadcast Maori TV”. It would cost them $32. He said they could play it to the other men and it might help them understand what was happening to them. He thought it was important that more people knew about the effects of psychiatric drugs.
Yet another man walks his Jack Russell down our street every day. His face is like a weathered craggy outcrop. He told me on the day of the February earthquake – as he was walking his dog around the neighbourhood to check on people – that he’d been in the street for a couple of years now.
Before that he’d been up in Papanui (north Christchurch) but he had to get out because they were all into dope in the house where he flatted (he would now be in his late forties, early fifties probably). He’d been into it, too, for about twenty years, but he knew he had to do something. So he moved here, to our street.
He explained that, before going on to the dope, he’d been in therapy for years, but it didn’t help. Seems that when he was young he was sexually abused – “every day” he said.
Now he’s on medication. He says his mind’s hopeless and he can’t remember well. He doesn’t know whether it was the dope or the medications. I assume he’s on the invalid’s benefit. I assume all these men are.
Were his choices ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
I’d say ‘good’. After all, here he is, walking his dog everyday, chatting to his neighbours, checking up on them. Not a bad ‘outcome’, given where he started.
By the same standard, were my classmates’ choices ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
Or, is ‘choice’ simply not the point?