Crunching the numbers to combat child poverty

16 February 2018

Dr Barry Milne
Dr Barry Milne

The numbers aren’t happy reading: an estimated 12 percent of New Zealand children, some 135,000 of them, are living in material hardship, putting them at higher risk of poor health and living in situations where it is difficult for them to thrive.

Aiming to change that are two researchers associated with the Department of Statistics: Dr Barry Milne, Director of the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences (COMPASS), who is the project leader, researcher Andrew Sporle, and their colleagues. They have won a $1.2m Health Research Council grant to explore detailed data on children to find out what direct and indirect factors related to poverty influence child health, so that resources can be better directed to help children thrive.

Barry, Andrew and their colleagues will be using Government datasets from the newly-established Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which are linked to individuals and allow researchers to see across large slices of their lives. The data is anonymised. Crucially, the linked datasets enable researchers to track the effects of a range of variables related to poverty, such as low income, overcrowding and transience, on children’s health over time. In effect, they can trace a child’s life stories in the numbers.

Senior Research Fellow Andrew Sporle
Senior Research Fellow Andrew Sporle

Says Andrew, “We’re looking at what sorts of factors can mediate poverty in children. We’re looking at the pathway – how to actually get good outcomes from a bad start. The benefit is that policy makers will end up with really robust evidence on the most effective ways to reduce the damage that childhood poverty does to health.”

Barry says that researchers can also drill into what aspects of 'poverty dynamics', such as duration or timing of a situation or event, have the greatest impact on a child’s future wellbeing. “We’ll also be looking at what factors most strongly influence the links between child poverty and health, and the likely benefits of intervening on these factors.”

For Andrew, this sort of work is “exciting. We’re using statistics to inform the best ways to minimise the harm that comes from growing up in poverty.”

The project is officially titled Child poverty: Health consequences, costs, and policy interventions. It started last September and runs for three years.