There's nothing lazy journalists like better than a report from the Child Poverty Action Group. Nicely packaged, seemingly reputable names attached to it, brimful of emotional concern for the poor, and bound to draw supportive statements from the other groups that farm poverty. No critical analysis required of the journalist; the stories stand as they come. The message is so simple, too. The government must "fix" poverty by paying out more to house big families because over-crowding raises infection rates among children - or some variant on this familiar theme. Never a word about what the poor themselves might do to ameliorate their situation.
Is it so simple? Would more expenditure make matters better or worse? Let's analyse the CPAG's trite message. But first: how come there are still so many social problems when we've been through a longer period of economic growth than at any time since that raft of welfare benefits - the DPB, Sickness Benefits and ACC - were introduced in the 1970s? Why is it that instead of 5% living on welfare in the 1970s the figure today is around 20%?
One newspaper recently produced a story, photos and all, to sustain the Child Poverty Action Group's case. It highlighted a family of nine children, seven living in one room because fire burned some of the uninsured house. Father had given up work, he said, because it's hard to find a job that pays enough without working the 40 or 50 hours a week that the rest of us do. Coming home at 7pm put too much pressure on the whole relationship, he claimed. Instead, he opted for an Unemployment Benefit and an accommodation supplement. As they continue to procreate, they want more.
The rest of us ask why there are so many kids, and why it's our responsibility to feed and house them? Why doesn't the poverty industry ask such questions before rushing into print? I am yet to see one of their reports advising against over-large families. Big families where there isn't enough money have always struggled. My grandparents came from families of 9, 13, 7 and 11, respectively. None had more than five children themselves, and in my generation three is the largest amongst us. Nearly all have only two. The biggest boost to birth control in the 20th century was the realisation that it was easier to bring up a smaller family, and there were likely to be more equal parental opportunities, and more disposable cash to enjoy life.
People of course are free to have big families if they choose. Until the 1970s, however, parents realised that to exercise that choice would, on balance, deprive all children of vital care and attention, and many of life's pleasures. Then came the DPB, more generous sickness benefits, accommodation supplements, special needs grants etc. Suddenly one didn't need to tie a knot in it; the State would come to the rescue. At the core of the huge cycle of poverty that churns away amongst the lowest socio-economic groups in this country is excessive breeding, and today's policies that encourage it.
For half a century Japan, China and India have grappled with various solutions as they try to lift living standards for everyone. We did too. I recall one of the first things I voted for in Parliament was a substantial increase in the government grant to the Family Planning Association. That dedicated bunch whose patron saint, Dr Alice Bush, was such a name to conjure with in my youth, have done more to alleviate child poverty in New Zealand than the Child Poverty Action Group, and their attendant industry, will ever do.
The reason is clear: when it became too expensive and difficult to raise large families, parents regulated themselves. But if the State pays people to have children - which it does these days - the feckless respond accordingly. Everyone understands incentives. Even people with a modicum of sense see advantages in pushing the case for even more assistance. And thus the wheel of poverty keeps turning, reducing growth and living standards for us all. If we did what CPAG wants, the wheel would grow bigger and spin faster. In my darker moments I suspect that wouldn't worry them. Neither would it concern the rest of the poverty industry, or the journalists who pay them such uncritical attention. Until they can work out a credible line, the poverty industry should belt up.