Written by Dame Lesley Max, Founder and Co-Chair
[Adapted from Great Potentials Foundation Annual Report 2011 - 2012]

Great Potentials Foundation is a charitable trust operating in the context which New Zealand and the world must deal with - an age of austerity. One of the consequences of this is that every dollar of taxpayers’ funds and every dollar of charitable funding from trusts or individuals should be used to best possible effect and positive, long-term outcomes.

New Zealand is faced not only with economic challenges but also challenges in respect of a large minority of our population who are not succeeding, as seen in educational failure, non-participation in the economy, crime, poor health, and abuse and neglect of children.

It is generally understood that there is a connection between those challenges – the economic and the human – but the nature of that connection is not sufficiently understood.

A major theme pervading discussion of New Zealand’s challenges is inequality with emphasis on financial inequality, but the picture is more complex. It would be dishonest to deny the disparity in income between the wealthy and the poor. But it does not follow that a leveling of income, if it could be achieved, would eliminate the disparities in the lives of children and young people.

In my view, we need to revisit the concept of ‘the culture of poverty’, an analysis made by the sociologist Oscar Lewis in the 1960s, in order to understand just why so many people are doing so badly in this country and why there is such disparity.

The culture of poverty is not related to any ethnicity. Neither is it found only in households which are cash poor.

Conversely, families which are cash poor do not necessarily demonstrate the characteristics of the culture of poverty, listed below:

  • Absence of childhood as a specially prolonged and protected stage in the life cycle
  • Early initiation into sex
  • Free unions, rather than marriage
  • A relatively high incidence of the abandonment of wives and children
  • A trend toward female or mother-centred families
  • A strong feeling of marginality, helplessness, dependence and inferiority
  • Lack of impulse control
  • A strong present-time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and plan for the future
  • A sense of resignation and fatalism and a low level of aspiration.

Professor Lewis wrote: “Once it comes into existence it tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effect on the children…The most likely candidates for the culture of poverty are the people who come from the lower strata of a rapidly changing society and are already partially alienated from it.” (Oscar Lewis, “La Vida”, Panther, 1968)

There are aspects of adversity in the lives of children which may be exacerbated by poverty, but do not arise simply out of poverty, rather out of a multiply disadvantaged environment.

Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Heckman, a frequent collaborator of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, says of disparity: “Children in affluent homes are bathed in financial and cognitive resources. Those children born into less advantaged circumstances are much less likely to receive cognitive and socio-emotional stimulation and other family resources. The family environments of single-parent homes compared to intact families are much less favourable for investment in children.”

However, Professor Heckman states, “Enriching early environments can partially compensate for early adversity.”

Heckman also notes that “Fifty per cent of the variance in inequality in lifetime earnings is determined by age 18. The family plays a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes that is not fully recognised by current American policies.”

Nor by current New Zealand policies, which seem to be built upon a presumption that institutions (early childhood centres and schools) have the deciding influence on children’s and young people’s outcome, despite the evidence that it is families which are more influential.

Heckman argues powerfully for the cost benefit of interventions early in the lives of disadvantaged children, finding substantially higher economic returns than later interventions.

Why? Because, he says, life-cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. “Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Motivation cross-fosters skill, and skill cross-fosters motivation. If a child is not motivated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, he or she will fail in social and economic life. The longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage.”

HIPPY children are motivated to learn and engage early on in life. MATES provides later opportunities at critical points of transition to increase motivation, engagement and skills.

What Professor Sir Peter Gluckman and Professor Heckman have made clear is the importance of non-cognitive attributes as well as cognitive, in the making of the successful individual. Non-cognitive attributes are characteristics such as perseverance, self-control, motivation, sociability and the ability to work with others.

All of Great Potentials’ programmes - from our Family Service Centres, to our HIPPY programme to our MATES programmes – model, coach and shape those attributes.

Professor Lord Robert Winston observed that: “Early experiences can make a failure out of a child with the genes for genius, while they can make a success out of someone less blessed.”

Early experiences lie at the basis of all the major problems... The key to success actually lies in the homes of New Zealand, those very unequal homes, where the differences in experience, hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, accumulate into a difference in destiny.

Great Potentials works to positively influence that destiny.

Our Family Service Centres and HIPPY help parents to understand babies’ and small children’s developmental stages and needs and to strengthen the protective bonding that is vital for the child’s healthy development into a responsible and empathetic adult.

All Great Potentials’ programmes, from the Family Service Centres to HIPPY and MATES, develop people’s capacity, capability, motivation, self-control, ability to plan for the future, to aspire, to persevere and to achieve.

In this way, Great Potentials enables people and families to break away from that destructive culture of poverty, from marginalised lives, towards inclusion in their communities and our wider society.



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