At last – A fundamental shift in social policy

Ian Shirley

The child wellbeing strategy represents the most significant shift in social policy in over four decades because of its focus on children as a population group and its emphasis on addressing structural issues in promoting economic and social wellbeing.

This shifts from the four decades long treatment of children as individuals, a reversal of the Treasury thinking from 1987, when they wrote that:

Families and tribes are not organic entities with mortality, rationality and senses, they cannot feel pleasure and pain …. the individual person is the logical basis for [social policy] analysis (p. 410).

This individualistic approach has permeated social and educational policy ever since. Yet we know that children do best when their families and social groups do best.

I was involved in a major research programmes that focussed on family policy and the concept of a social or family wage – policy constructs that have been central to the development of New Zealand’s welfare state arrangements. The wide range of research projects conducted within the framework of family policy culminated in a major comparative study of twenty countries coordinated by the Mannheim Centre in Germany. This international study[i] published a comprehensive review of family policy over time with particular emphasis on the changing national and international conditions out of which family policies emerged. In particular, the research paved the way for a radical rethinking of policies relating to children. Instead of a focus on ‘troublesome children and children in trouble’ the emphasis was on childhood outcomes[ii], with the research project funded by the Social Policy Agency (a predecessor of the Ministry of Social Policy) and summarised in a presentation to the Ministerial summit on Children and Childhood hosted by the Minister of Social Development in 2000.


From the individual child to childhood and to children as a population group 

The two most important factors in the constitution of modern childhood are identified as legislation prescribing compulsory education, and laws setting parameters for child labour. A child became someone who had not finished elementary education and was too young to work. These defining characteristics were followed by penal laws raising the age of criminal responsibility and regulating sexuality and marriage. Even the protection of children was confined to legal sanctions against murder, maiming and incest. When the protection of children against adult cruelty and neglect followed, it was modelled on legislation aimed at preventing cruelty to animals.

Not only did the rights of children come last in the family hierarchy, but early protective legislation defined children as subordinate members of society who owed obedience and deference to the father of the family, to the master of the school, and to other institutions in loco parentis. Whereas the emancipation of adult males was a liberation from gerontocracy, feudalism, slavery and other socio-economic tyrants, the emancipation of women and children has been a process of liberation from patriarchy with children’s rights only emerging 50 years after the first significant advances of women.

The historical ambivalence in the treatment of children is reflected in the changing priorities of the social sciences. Childhood has rarely been explicitly studied at all, but when it does feature as the focus of research agendas, the main emphasis has been on children as passive recipients in the ‘process of becoming adults’. Children are treated as ‘non-people in non-places’ with research focusing on the child as an outcome of genetic and environmental processes, rather than a social being actively engaged in life. Good outcomes for children traditionally means developing those skills, competencies and cultural practices that enable a child to make a ‘successful’ transition to adulthood. Children are dealt with as ‘human becomings’ rather than human beings.

A second theme evident in the research literature centres on the preoccupation with negative indicators and outcomes. It is a bias encapsulated in research on dysfunctional families and children at risk where the emphasis is either on children in trouble or troublesome children. The international literature is preoccupied with:

Neglected children, children who are victims of violence and sexual abuse, children who have disappeared, children of divorced families, criminal and deviant children, truants – indeed, even hyperactive and exceptionally talented children seem to constitute a problem.[iii]

Whereas the human development literature generally adopts a life-cycle approach in explaining the transitions made by individuals as they proceed from one stage of development to another, policy-related studies on childhood are dominated by a welfare focus where the emphasis is on those individuals or groups who deviate from the norm. The welfare approach is problematic for two reasons: first it focusses attention on a minority with explanations inevitably limited to groups that have already been defined as deviant; and secondly, it begs the question, what is normal development?

A third theme to emerge from the international literature concerns the narrow definition of risk and the limited range of factors that are used in focusing policy options and in prescribing social service intervention or practice. Whenever children are viewed as a population group they are generally perceived as a collection of individuals – the dependent cogs of the family unit within a society of adults. Even the statistics we collect on children are almost exclusively focused on the family or the household and as a consequence the child is viewed as a by-product of the main unit of observation. This reductionist approach to childhood is exemplified in studies of children at risk where the focus centres on individual differences and pathologies, thereby excluding environmental factors such as housing, work-poor households, the economic circumstances of the family and the pervasive influence of unfavourable neighbourhoods.


The well-being strategy

The focus on children and childhood by this government represents the most fundamental shift in social policy in over four decades. As a policy focus it gives New Zealand the ability to make a comprehensive start on addressing economic and social inequality, the most significant social policy issue of this 21st century. The reality is that all children are vulnerable and at the same time the nation’s children represent our future as a nation and our greatest asset. By focusing on childhood and children as a population group attention is drawn to the comparative wellbeing of children vis a vis other populations and subgroups of the population. The strategy is not without its challenges which include how policies will be implemented, the ways in which outcomes will be analysed and monitored, and the need for more focus on youth as a group separate to children. But the draft outcomes in the Child Wellbeing Strategy are a positive step forward, in particular the emphasis on addressing structural issues in promoting economic and social wellbeing.



Ian’s submission to the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy can be read here:


[i] Shirley, I., P. Koopman-Boyden, I. Pool, S. St.John (1997). Family Change and Family Policies: New Zealand. The New Zealand section of the International Family Study, edited by S. Kamerman & A. Kahn, Clarendon Press, Oxford (207-304).

[ii]Shirley, I., V. Adair, A. Anderson (2000) The Determinants of Good Childhood Outcomes. A report for the Social Policy Agency Auckland & Wellington.

[iii] Qvortrup, J. (1987). Introduction in international Journal of Sociology, Special Issue on Childhood, Vol 17, Issue 3, (3-37).

Categories: Inequality, Social Policy
Ian Shirley
About the author

Ian Shirley

Emeritus Professor – Auckland University of Technology
Ian Shirley is a former Professor of Public Policy at AUT, and founder of The Policy Observatory. He has led major research programmes both in New Zealand and overseas the most recent being an international study of economic and social development engaging 15 research teams in the major metropolitan cities of Asia, the Pacific and Latin America. Professor Shirley has led ministerial councils for both Labour and National administrations in New Zealand. He has acted as a consultant to the Minister of Finance and a Budget taskforce on Income tax and Social Security. He continues research on New Zealand as a social laboratory and Auckland city governance.