Looking back to look ahead – prospects for the next generation

The challenge of social investment against a backdrop of demographic, social and political change in New Zealand.

Our early lives shape much of our life course, and the way we then go on to influence later generations. Families and community play significant parts in this, as does the state, particularly through health, housing, education, justice and income support policies, but also through employment and tax policies and facilitation of social services.

In social services, the worlds of science, policy and practice are weakly connected. Current services are only rarely associated with deep reflection on the past performance of policies which may have contributed to where we are now.  Even with a greater capacity for such reflection, political sentiment will often limit how we frame our thinking.

Science tells us about some of what could influence the care, welfare and development of children as a group, although how and why we can determine the outcome of any specific child is quite uncertain. Through connecting the records of the state and a greater commitment to evidence gathering we have more information and better knowledge about children in the past, and what went on during their childhood.

This post considers how well we have responded to particular concerns over the past half century, what is on our doorstep, and what is changing about our society and its aspirations. Social investment is proposed as a way of identifying the key elements of these pressures and applying targeted solutions that are predicted to bring about long-term fiscal and personal benefits.

Investment of any sorts is accompanied by political dilemma. There are trade-offs in foregoing present consumption for future benefits, especially when those whose consumption is changed are of a different generation, age, community or social situation than those whose needs will be met from the investment.

Population variability, diversity and dynamics make the reliability of most social services programmes uncertain. Evidence plays a smaller part than political sentiment in policy choices, so ensuring the trustworthiness of social services programmes is a major challenge to accountability processes. Targeting, sanctions and penalties can encourage perverse effects, and these can reduce the likelihood of improved welfare, as can reducing the autonomy of agents to do the right thing when determining eligibility and entitlement. These risks are amplified when the focus of accountability is on the service delivery agent rather than the child or citizen.

Because the state produces most of the information that holds it to account, the ability to give or withdraw trust is vital when services are inadequate, as with housing, town water supply or mental health services. We have a new understanding of the consequences of violence in New Zealand and know we need to rethink traditional responses.  An overdue appreciation of the importance of whānau is a reminder of a need to strengthen recognition and support for family, whānau and community, who provide a very large share of health services, housing and education that children need, along with the state.  The state needs to recognise that even where it appears to have primary responsibility, families usually dominate what happens in a child’s life.

Building on population booms, social revolutions and welfare reforms of the last 50 years

New Zealand society of fifty years ago is hardly recognisable today. The emergence and visibility of many diverse communities has led to a rise in aspirations for the widening mix of those who make up New Zealand’s population. The level of social, cultural and economic change has been unforeseeable, and so have the pressures that families and whānau, and old and young now face.  The universal provision of fifty years ago was often selective in determining eligibility. The disabled, solo parents, those with mental illness, Māori and women – all experienced exclusion from the otherwise universal services of the state. As the welfare state transformed itself from universal directed provision to targeted programmes, there was a shift to a shorter-term focus on service provider accountabilities – a form of spot market. Ironically, these changes occurred as we became richer as a nation.

An ongoing increase in life expectancy, initially due to reducing infant mortality, and now to increasing longevity, has resulted in changed aspirations for most retirees.

The demand for higher levels of education has coincided with a shift to user pays. At the same time, home ownership is becoming less likely for the young. Ironically, the growth in access to free tertiary education broadened the mix of those who could have such aspirations, before fees were put in place.  The capacity to accumulate housing assets and human capital with public support has been replaced by self-funded higher education and training through debt accumulation, and a transformation of the housing market into investment vehicles.

Human rights now play a prominent part in challenging the state, as do international conventions. Along with the demographic benefits of a young and increasingly highly educated population, Treaty settlements have contributed to Māori becoming significant investors economically, educationally and culturally. Yet there is still a disproportionate and growing share of young Māori being institutionalised by the state.


In areas where public policy differentiates between family types, it usually disadvantages children not in nuclear families. The rise in the number of single parent families following the introduction of new legislation in 1980 allowing the dissolution of marriage under a no-fault system is reflected in the 1986 Census figures in Table 1. This was a one-off blip and not indicative of an ongoing trend.

While the main shift in income inequality occurred some twenty years ago, there are some continuing effects, including the share of children living in poor housing, or in households with debt issues, etc. Since 2001, the share of children of all ages (0-4, 5-9, 10-14 years) living in extended families has continued to grow, especially in Māori and Pacific communities, and for children aged 0-4 years (see Table 2 below). Housing shortages may have influenced these trends. The Growing Up in New Zealand study noted that of surveyed mothers with babies born in 2009-10, 45 percent changed houses in the two years following the birth, and 26 percent did so before the baby reached 9 months. Those living in an extended family situations reported higher levels of mobility.


The practical realities of life in New Zealand for our families and whānau must be better understood in order to fully inform social policy design and implementation. Superu’s Children and Families Research Fund is dedicated to funding policy-relevant research using data from the GUiNZ study. Round 2 of the fund is now open, with $750,000 available for social policy projects. There’s more information and application forms on Superu’s website.