The stakes are too high for this much stupidity

Dr Eric Crampton
Insight Newsletter
7 July, 2023

The New Zealand Economics Association annual meetings are a great way of keeping abreast of what the country’s economists are working on. 

And sometimes they’re downright depressing. 

At last week’s meetings, Auckland University of Technology’s Professor Rhema Vaithianathan’s keynote explained what she’s been up to over the past decade. 

Her team has been helping American child protection services to do a better job protecting kids.  

Child protection work is grim. Officials balance two terrible kinds of errors.  

Over-zealousness means a lot of families will be put through a painful wringer unnecessarily. But under-intervention means some kids who could have been helped will wind up abused, hospitalised, or killed.  

Unless you can find a way of reducing both types of errors. 

And Prof Vaithianathan’s team found a good one. 

Child protection workers have a mountain of administrative data for making decisions on whether to intervene in response to a call, but only about ten minutes to make each decision – then on to the next case.  

It is impossible to regularly make good decisions faced with that much complexity and that little time. 

Prof Vaithianathan’s team reduced complexity by turning data into a predictive score laying out the risk each case posed, to help child protection workers make the right call.  

They started the U.S. work in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, because Allegheny wanted to use data to make better decisions. The programme’s success inspired others to try it out.  

And a later randomised control trial showed that the system reduced child hospitalisation by a third.  

It also reduced the bias that case workers otherwise bring with them in making assessments. The risk scored meant more high-risk white families received help and fewer low-risk black families had to deal with child protection services. 

It’s a great story.  

The depressing part?  

The work started here in New Zealand. It was killed by Anne Tolley as Minister, who described it as experimenting on kids. And the subsequent Labour government showed even less interest in data-based approaches.  

One third fewer hospitalisations for children in risky families.  

But not here.  

In America instead.  

Thanks to Kiwi researchers, who were chased away from doing the work here.  

An innovative American county can try something new and let others follow. New Zealand’s centralisation means a single bad Ministerial decision can cause a lot of harm for a very long time. 

Far better policy, and outcomes, are possible. Even here. But voters have to demand it. 

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