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Social investment is more than reprioritisation

photo of Trevor McGlincheyTrevor McGlinchey, Executive Officer
New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services

The government is actively promoting the Social Investment model – spending more now so that the tax-payer will spend less in the long run – as the mechanism to justify greater spending in the social sector.   This was first signalled in the Welfare Reforms where stopping people from being “welfare dependent” was the justification for greater expenditure in getting people into employment.   This model has now spread out to the wider social services.

While the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services (NZCCSS) agrees that “investing” in people is sensible – we have to be careful not to take this analogy too far.   Those with the most of a particular type of need, the kinds of needs that government sees as leading to a track of long-term benefit receipt or of imprisonment, can be demonstrated to be likely to give a good return on investment.   The expenditure of twenty or thirty thousand dollars when the person is a child to ensure their family has the skills to support them.   Along with meeting other needs, such as getting specialist education, will help that child leave school with a formal qualification.  This type of result on average is likely to result in less government support in benefit payments, in imprisonment costs and welfare supports over the lifetime of the child.

This type of equation is easy to understand.  What is more difficult is understanding how supporting a family that does not meet government criteria may mean they will never end up in the place where intensive support is needed.   Providing counselling, parenting support and other services to families who are not in the targeted “vulnerable group” may mean these people will never get into that category.   But without that additional support they may well have.   This is a much more difficult equation – yet one that should be calculated.

Government is set on reprioritising the funding it uses to support families and communities, tightly tying funding to the most vulnerable and calculating the return on investment for this group.   They appear to be planning to “reprioritise” social services funding from the less-vulnerable to the more-vulnerable.   NZCCSS believes government should increase their social investment in the more vulnerable – but not at the expense of those in our communities who actively seek support so they do not find themselves in trouble.   Rather than investment through reprioritisation, investment through increasing the overall funding into social services is needed.

The reprioritisation model could mean a long pipeline of families, who as a result of not being able to access support when needed, gradually find themselves becoming more and more desperate – more and more vulnerable.   At which stage they will be eligible to access a much more expensive range of interventions.   This is not a good investment!   A real social investment is putting more into the system – not just reprioritising what you already spend.

This doesn’t mean government should not seek evidence of effective delivery, of achieving outcomes and making a change.   Good quality providers should be rewarded by ongoing contracts.   Providers who cannot demonstrate their effectiveness should be worked with and if still unable to prove their worth they should have their contracts cancelled.   However, not providing a full range of preventative services in order to focus all resources on the most vulnerable could prove to be a very bad investment as more and more families fall through the widening gaps in the social support networks and end up needing intensive and expensive social supports.  In all of this work we must also remember people are more than just economic units and only worth supporting when the return is calculated to be high enough!