Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Welfare and IQ

There is a fascinating tussle going on between Gordon Campbell and Peter Saunders. Gordon Campbell first drew attention to the writing and ideas of Peter Saunders, who has been appointed to the Welfare Working Group in an advisory capacity. Campbell is strongly condescending towards Saunder's thinking about IQ, how it affects achievement and the role it has played in the developing numbers of welfare-dependent people.

Saunders talks a great deal about class. He is now living back in his native Britain (also my birthplace) where class is part of the wallpaper.

I have always understood that when NZ was colonised there was something of a desire to leave behind the class mentality. Ambitious working class people were lured out here with the promise of land ownership. Many, if not most, 4th or 5th generation NZers come from humble backgrounds. No big deal. I am not so much proud that my great grandfather was an Irish scavenger, but grateful that he got himself out of Ireland looking for better or I wouldn't be around today. On my mother's side, her Dad was a miner. She, against the odds, put herself through teachers training college and made a better life for herself than was expected. When I was young we had IQ tests at school (England). Because my mother was a teacher she was privy to my result which was apparently very good. But I didn't turn out to be academically brilliant. Dropped out of University and cleaned offices. It was never a matter of 'couldn't do' but didn't 'want to do'. And I was always happy hanging out with 'ordinary' people. People from working or middle-class backgrounds. Later in life, when I wanted to challenge what I was seeing around me, then I began the long ongoing process of educating myself.

So where am I getting to with this. People like Gordon Campbell hate the idea of class and IQ. In his circles you can't dare say someone is not smart enough to be a teacher or a doctor. Because that is insulting. (And yet this same troop - although it may not specifically include Campbell - have formed their own brand of elitism. And woe betide if someone without academic qualifications writes something they don't like. Suddenly the pleb has over-reached herself).

IQ is only a measurement of certain abilities. I know plenty of people who wouldn't fare well in the IQ testing stakes who are 'intelligent'. But what Saunders is trying to convey is that intellectual ability is a fact and it very much influences what people can and will achieve in their lives, including social status. Some people have too much and it can wreck their lives.

What Campbell actually thinks is less accessible. He quotes someone called Young at length, about 'meritocracy' which seems to be a theory that people who have achieved on merit then close off opportunity to others to follow suit. Sounds conspiratorial.

But he does question Saunder's suitability to be an advisor to the group on more tangible grounds;

Having displayed this touching faith in the accuracy and cultural neutrality of IQ testing, Saunders ploughs on. Over the course of the last three decades, he points out, low skilled jobs have been shed in many developed countries. “What are governments to do about this?” he asks. “The problem is that one-sixth of the population has an IQ under 85… Pushing them through government training courses makes politicians feel good, but it is not going to turn them into skilled IT workers. Somehow, we have to find new, useful, but less challenging tasks for them to do.”

Having dismissed the value of retraining programmes for welfare beneficiaries on welfare, Saunders then proceeds to criticize measures to improve the equality of opportunity to tertiary education. Again, this is a wasted effort, in his view. To repeat: these are the sort of views that Paula Bennett wants her expert panel on welfare reform to heed. We should be very worried.

Equality of opportunity is important and I think a great deal more of it exists in this country than in the UK. But what strikes me as I read Saunder's column is his approach to the welfare 'problem' is coloured by his recent Australian and UK experiences. Both countries have had long dole queues for a long time.

Notwithstanding some moved onto sickness and invalid's benefits, NZ's dole queue shortened dramatically before the recent recession. Some may attribute that to the very availability of equal opportunity.

While New Zealand shares similarities with Australia in the welfare-dependence stakes, it is also quite different. Unique in fact. Maori, and to a lesser extent Pacific Islanders, make up a disproportionate share of recipients.

I reject that the Maori dependence is down to low intelligence. Maybe some wouldn't perform well under IQ testing but I know enough Maori well enough to know they are not stupid (apologies for my own collectivising). Maori dependence is long-standing; both complicated and simple; economic and cultural. The bulk of their dependence is through unsupported mothers. I am loathe to call them 'single' because many are not. A further chunk of it is through ill-health, both physical and mental. On the other hand, Maori unemployment is higher in a recession but we have seen it drop to very low levels when the work is there. In June 2007 less than 8,000 Maori were on the unemployment benefit compared to 43,000 in 1999 and many more in the early 90s.

So coming at the NZ welfare problem from an intelligence/ ability angle would not be a priority on any list I had written. Maori are a resourceful people. That has to be unlocked at every level. It gets undermined when the state runs around doing for them.

But I digress. There will always be work (or a working partner) for people who do not aspire or, heaven help us, lack the ability to become academics and professionals. The problem is making it financially viable. Enough to live on. Either the state gets out of the way and lifts the taxation burden off employers (I can't see this happening and part of me distrusts that a free market would bring less inequality) or it tops up people doing menial work. It is still preferable to have people in work, getting topped up or paying no tax, than being paid to be economically unproductive.

There is a danger of over-intellectualising the whole business of welfare dependence. But at least I can understand where Peter Saunders is coming from. I can't say the same for Campbell.


Timm said...

Ultimately we will have to have government subsidised employment for the lower skilled who simply won't be employable in private enterpise as competition for even lower-paid roles increases.
Government sweat-shops seem to be on the cards.

Anonymous said...

[Mitchell quoting Campbell quoting Saunders]:
“The problem is that one-sixth of the population has an IQ under 85… Pushing them through government training courses makes politicians feel good, but it is not going to turn them into skilled IT workers. Somehow, we have to find new, useful, but less challenging tasks for them to do.”

Here I was under the impression that a 100 IQ was societal average, with deviations from that average being the "score". By definition 1/6 score 85 or under - the question is whether somebody on 85 today would do better than somebody scoring 100 fifty years ago. The Flynn Effect is an observation that the answer could well be "yes".

Saunders doesn't actually cite any connection between being on a benefit and IQ. It just seems to be an assumption he works on, which takes precedence over other socio-cultural, economic and political factors. I just think things are a bit more complicated than that. If he'd come up with something like "... but 40% of beneficiaries have an IQ under 85" he'd have something. No idea whether that's the case or not.


StephenR said...

Timm, we did have something like that while Labour was in power when intellectually disabled individuals were working (government sanctioned) for a fair bit below the minimum wage.


M Schwartz said...

***The Flynn Effect is an observation that the answer could well be "yes".***

Not really. The Flynn effect seems to reflect gains on domain specific items, but not necessarily overall ability. A test’s g loading is the best predictor, not just of school grades and workplace performance, but also of all the other indicators and correlates of intelligence—including biological variables, reaction times, and heritability estimates.

***Saunders doesn't actually cite any connection between being on a benefit and IQ. ***

There is a mountain of research on the link between iq and a range of socio-economic outcomes. If you take a group who average 90, you can confidently predict they will tend to be worse off on a number of measures in comparison to a group who average 110.

For a nice summary see Why g matters: the complexity of ordinary life by psychologist Linda Gottfredson (or look up some other papers on her faculty page).