Real world consequence of statistical errors

21:35, Feb 27 2014

It's not easy for the Government to convince people that it really has a handle on the inequality issue when Treasury and Statistics NZ between them managed to underestimate the number of our children living in poverty by 20,000.

Easily overlooked, apparently.

This latest howler to come to light from one of our Government departments is one that Treasury insists has no "real world" consequences.

That's to say the benefit payments to individuals or households and the tax credits and tax to pay, were all still being doled out and hauled in to people in line with their entitlements and responsibilities.

What really happened here, though, was that the real world didn't have quite the impact it should have on the data that was presented to the public. It wasn't as non-fictional as it was really meant to be.

That most certainly is a real world consequence.


The calculation, itself controversial, is made by counting those living in households with less than 60 per cent of median income after housing costs. The number for 2011/12 should have been 285,000.

Now that the stragglers are back in the headcount, we know that since the recent global recession the number of kids in poverty increased by 60,000 - twice as many as we'd been told.

Government and Finance Minister Bill English knew about it before Christmas, but didn't go out of his way to point it out to the rest of us even when he was dismissing claims of growing inequality. The Opposition figure he owes an apology for that.

Just a few days ago we were complaining that former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer's call for a royal commission of inquiry into a public sector lacking the capacity to be effective, mired in low morale and still failing to co-operate with one another, was looking better justified day by day.

We did this after the Southern District Health Board lost the breast exam images of more than 3000 women and the police admitted 20,000 cases of innocent people being ticketed by mistake for speed camera offences - but before the Southern DHB had a district-wide computer malfunction and all those impoverished kids finally caught up with the Government record-keepers.

Sir Geoffrey's report, remember, was dismissed as a political smokescreen because the public sector was, in fact, performing swimmingly where it really mattered, as the Government's Better Public Services initiative was there to testify.

Right now, though, it's looking increasingly hard to use the "if it ain't broke" justification to fend off Sir Geoffrey's concerns.

The Southland Times