On the face of it, the results were not a surprise. The Dunedin Study – the landmark longitudinal assessment of the lives of 1000 people born in the city in 1972-73 – this week announced its latest finding was that a small portion of our population was a disproportionate weight on society. They committed by far the most crime, claimed the majority of welfare benefits and were more likely to smoke and be overweight, researchers said. The numbers showed that about 20 per cent of the study’s participants accounted for 80 per cent of its economic burden.
The research drew a causal link between this cost and childhood disadvantage. Again, no surprises. The crucial part was that they found that neurological tests done when participants were three years old could predict with “reasonable accuracy” who would grow up to be part of the 22 per cent who were responsible for, at a glance, 81 per cent of criminal convictions, 78 per cent of prescriptions filled and 66 per cent of benefits paid. This burdensome few scored lower on verbal comprehension, language development, motor skills and behavioural tests as pre-schoolers.
Which is why those early years are so important for education and assistance.
Incoming Prime Minister Bill English has led a wholesale reform of the public service from the finance portfolio, based in part on smarter spending through data analytics. Predictive risk modelling has already been proffered as a way to identify and help vulnerable children and stop abuse and welfare dependency turning into criminality. It wasn’t always popular – a plan to apply modelling to newborns was particularly controversial – but the change mantra has stuck. After English, its biggest champion has been his new deputy, Paula Bennett, a veteran of a host of social services portfolios.
The risk factors are now well known. The solutions are not free tertiary education for privileged students, but targeted interventions for those most at risk.