Wellbeing policy in action

New research from Te Herenga Waka’s Wellington School of Business and Government (WSBG) explores how a modified approach to the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework (LSF) could benefit mothers and children experiencing material hardship.

The research paper by recent Master of Public Policy graduate Leah Haines and Chair of Wellbeing and Public Policy Professor Arthur Grimes, titled ‘What matters for the wellbeing of mothers and children in material hardship? Application of a modified indicator approach’, has just been published in the international journal Social Indicators Research. The paper was based on research Ms Haines conducted at Te Herenga Waka during her Master’s.

The research focuses on the wellbeing of mothers of dependent children who are experiencing material hardship. Using data from Statistics NZ’s General Social Survey, it estimates which contributors have the greatest impact on these mothers’ overall satisfaction with their lives.

The LSF, which is the Treasury’s wellbeing framework, includes multiple indicators of wellbeing such as health, housing, education, the environment, and safety. However, it has not been designed to prioritise policy proposals or to focus on the needs of specific disadvantaged groups.

The authors found the key areas that matter most to mothers in hardship are housing, income, social isolation, safety, and satisfaction with their own knowledge and skills. This last factor demonstrates the importance of the recent reinstatement of the Training Incentive Allowance for higher level education for mothers.

“The study shows the importance of understanding the real drivers of happiness for people who are the subject of public policy interventions, and the value of taking a gender-sensitive approach to policy analysis,” says Ms Haines.

The study found that what matters for mothers’ wellbeing in some cases differs from what matters for men’s wellbeing. An important finding was that being in work may be a more important contributor to male wellbeing than it is for some mothers with dependent children. A one-size-fits-all work test will therefore have different effects on the wellbeing of different groups.

“Without a deeper understanding of the drivers of wellbeing for individual groups, we’ve shown that policy designed to improve people’s lives can have the opposite effect. Paid work on its own doesn’t improve the happiness of some mothers in hardship. This indicates that other support, such as childcare or workplace flexibility, is likely to be needed for them to get the benefits other groups experience from paid work,” Ms Haines says.

Ms Haines was the top Master of Public Policy student in 2020 and won the Bernard Galvin prize.