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The costly 20 per cent

16 December 2016

A REPORT published in a new online journal, Nature Human Behaviour, has examined the latest findings from the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which has been plotting the lives of more than 1000 children born in one hospital in New Zealand in 1972-73. The study has identified one fifth (22 per cent) of the subjects who are responsible for 81 per cent of the cohort’s criminal convictions, 78 per cent of its prescriptions for drugs, 77 per cent of its fatherless children, 66 per cent of its welfare claims, 57 per cent of its hospital nights, 54 per cent of the cigarettes smoked, 40 per cent of its excess kilogrammes, and 36 per cent of its insurance claims. The suggestion is that these findings can be extrapolated to other cohorts in other societies. More signifi­cantly, researchers say that they can predict, with 80-per-cent accuracy, who will fall into this 22-per-cent segment by the use of a simple 45-minute test conducted at the age of three. Four factors combine to blight these children’s lives: “growing up in a socio-economically deprived family, exposure to maltreatment, low IQ, and poor self-control”.

Researchers involved in the Dunedin study are concerned that their results should be interpreted correctly: that is, used as justification for greater intervention in early-years support and education. Much of the reaction, however, has been less than positive, and risks further stigmatising this segment of the population. It would appear to please some people if children were moved immediately into a (very) young offenders’ unit, or had electronic tags fitted to save time later. The difficulty comes because these children have been labelled not as “troubled”, “disadvantaged”, or “deprived”, but as “expensive”. This is per­haps an innocent error, made to support the idea of early intervention as the least expensive way of helping this segment. Such an argument is needed. In March, the Children’s Society, working with the National Children’s Bureau, looked at the Early Intervention Grant. In 2010, local authorities were given £3.2 billion. But then the political climate changed. By 2020, according to their calculations, the spending will have reduced to £900 million ­— a cut of more than two-thirds. The Government calculates things dif­ferently, stating that the true figure for 2019-20 will be more than £6 billion; Labour, meanwhile, continues to challenge the Govern­ment about its reduced support for the Sure Start programme.

But beneath this concentration on cost lies the implication that people can be classified as economically productive units. In a short exchange in the Lords last week on early inter­vention, emphasis was placed on its value to business and industry. This is profoundly troubling. Taken across the whole span of his or her life, who would want to be categorised according to cost-effectiveness? Such thinking has no place in a country founded on Christian principles. Admittedly, this segment is identified for special treatment by Christ: the poor, those who hunger, those who weep, those whom people hate and cast out. These, Christ says, are the people who are blessed, with no thought of the cost.

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