Ethnicity-Based Research and Politics: Snapshots from the United States and New Zealand

By Baehler, Karen | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Ethnicity-Based Research and Politics: Snapshots from the United States and New Zealand


Baehler, Karen, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Abstract

Some developments in poverty and ethnic inequality have followed similar trajectories in New Zealand and the United States, as have the political responses to such developments. This paper examines episodes in both countries in which political backlash against controversial policy analysis threatened to block worthy research and debate. Drawing on recent controversies over Simon Chapple's paper on Maori socioeconomic disparities, this article calls for a political climate that will support vigorous research into the full range of factors needed to explain advantage and disadvantage.

INTRODUCTION

Simon Chapple was a senior analyst in the New Zealand Department of Labour in 2000 when he wrote "Maori Socio-Economic Disparity", a wide-ranging paper that marshals evidence intended to show, among other things, that disadvantage in New Zealand is more closely tied to age, marital status, education, skills, and geographic location than it is to ethnicity, broadly conceived. (2) Although the paper did not issue clear recommendations for policy, Chapple's conclusions pointed toward a gap-closing policy that would target pockets of disadvantage defined geographically and perhaps by sub-cultural features, rather than by targeting services to Maori as Maori.

As is well known, leaders of the ACT party used the Chapple paper to fuel a backlash against the Government's "closing the gaps" policy in late 1999 and early 2000. The attacks by MPs Muriel Newman and Richard Prebble were reinforced by favourable commentary on Chapple's analysis from less extreme quarters, such as Simon Upton's web-based opinion column (Newman 2000, Prebble 2000, Upton 2000). Ultimately, the momentum of the Chapple-induced debates contributed to the Government's decisions to remove the phrase "closing the gaps" from its vocabulary, to re-label the Government's policy "social equity," and to commit to fighting economic disadvantage rather than ethnic disparities (Young 2000a). This wave of backlash then produced a counter-backlash in which supporters of the Government's original policy sought to discredit Chapple's reasoning (3), and, ultimately, Chapple himself (Young 2000b).

This article draws on a somewhat similar episode in the history of American policy analysis in order to (1) illustrate the dangers of silencing debate about racial and ethnic disparities, and (2) discuss elements of an agenda for furthering our understanding of the Maori/non-Maori gap in labour market and Other outcomes.

BACKLASH AND THE COSTS OF SILENCE--AN AMERICAN INSTANCE

Observers of the American scene have witnessed what can happen when a policy analyst foresees a social problem but political backlash silences debate and blocks action.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now retired from the United States Senate, was a senior official in President Lyndon Johnson's Labor Department in 1965 when he wrote The Negro Family: A Case for National Action. That report warned the country that the achievements of the civil rights era could be endangered by the growing trend toward breakdown of the African-American family. He hypothesised from available evidence that the social disorganisation suffered by blacks who migrated to the cities after World War II had grown so deep that it could not respond to improvements in economic indicators, even to the achievement of full employment. According to his thesis, deprivation and disorganisation had formed their own vicious circle.

At the centre of that vicious circle sat the demographic evidence about family structure. Although Moynihan was not the first analyst to describe the breakdown of the black family in terms of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, sole-parent families headed by women, and welfare dependency (see, for example, Frazier 1939), he provided new statistical evidence and a model to explain it in his 1965 report. Most importantly, he caught the attention of President Johnson's White House with his warning that black patterns of family breakdown and welfare receipt endangered the achievements of the civil rights movement. …

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