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Australia’s welfare: latest snapshot on need and disadvantage

 The latest report card on health and wellbeing in Australia – Australia’s welfare 2013 – paints a broad picture of a healthy and wealthy nation, but also maps entrenched and emerging disadvantage.

So too do two other recent reports that drill further down into some of the issues: the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Household Income and Income Distribution 2011-12, and the Productivity Commission’s report on Deep and Persistent Disadvantage in Australia.

Australia’s Welfare 2013 is the 11th biennial  snapshot on welfare services from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Understandably it’s a big tome, but comes also as a summary, and is packed with accessible information and infographics.

The report notes that we’re living and working longer and are better educated than ever before, but many amongst us – particularly older people, Indigenous Australians, sole parents and their children, and people living in rural and regional areas – face ongoing health and welfare issues. The implications of an ageing population also loom across most indicators: health, housing, workforce, disability and more.

“Where we live, our family structure and our levels of education all affect the quality of our lives and how long we can expect to live,” said AIHW Director and CEO David Kalisch on releasing the report earlier this month.

This is particularly stark amongst Indigenous Australians – although the report records positive trends in housing, education and employment – and outside of major cities, where death and disability rates are higher and incomes and workforce participation lower.

 Drawing on its own and other reports, it notes that relatively disadvantaged members of the community live shorter lives and have higher rates of illness and disability, that  higher levels of education and income are associated with lower prevalence of risk factors to health (such as smoking and obesity), and that access to economic resources is positively linked to mental health and wellbeing, and optimal child development.

Australia’s welfare 2013: broad findings

Life, health and demographics

– Australian life expectancy for a boy born between 2009 and 2011 is 79.7 years, and for a girl 84.2 years—among the highest in the world.

– Life expectancy of Indigenous boys born between 2005 and 2007 (the latest data available) was estimated to be 67.2 years and 72.9 years for Indigenous girls, although the gap with non-Indigenous rates is closing.

– Age specific death rates among Indigenous Australians between 2007-2011 were at least double non-Indigenous rates in all age groups bar over 65 years and under 1 year, although they are still higher. The most pronounced difference comes between 24-54 years, at 4-5 times higher than the non-Indigenous rate.

– More than 3 million Australians (14 per cent) now are aged 65 and over, nearly 3 times as many as 40 years ago – including nearly 425,000 aged 85-plus, a sixfold increase.

– The number of young people is up by only 21 per cent over that time (32 per cent of the population versus 46 per cent in 1972).

– Infant mortality was 3.8 per 1,000 live births in 2011 – the lowest rate on record. Indigenous infant mortality rates remain much higher (6.6 per 1,000 live births according to limited data) although there has been a significant closing of the gap in recent years.

– 4 million Australians (nearly 1 in 5) have some form of disability.

Poverty and income support

– Government pensions and allowances were the main source of income for 1 in 4 households in 2009–10. Perhaps seen through an election lens, one report lamented taxpayers were ‘forking out’ more for welfare than health care – perhaps understating the realitiy that more than half of the spend is on the aged pension.

– Despite spending an estimated $12 billion on income support and welfare services, 13 per cent of households (2009) are considered to live in relative income poverty.

 Workforce trends

– The report says people in their 60s are ‘increasingly choosing to work’ rather than retire – though that may be as much to do with changing pension and super entitlements as choice.

– Women are taking less time off work after having children, and are doing this later in life, but young adults continue to struggle to get a foothold in employment.

– Currently we have around 2 adults of ‘traditional working age’ (15–64) for every person of ‘dependent’ age (over 65 or under 15). By 2032 this figure will drop to 1.7.

– The community services workforce grew by 24 per cent between 2006 and 2011.

Housing and homelessness

– The average number of people per household dropped between 1986 and 2001, but remained steady to 2011 at 2.6. The report attributes this to more young people staying at home for longer, yet empty nesters – families with no children at home – are forecast to exceed those still with children by next year for the first time.

– In another new trend, there are now more households with a mortgage (36 per cent) than those who own their homes outright (33 per cent). Ten years ago the reverse was true.

– The number of lower income households in ‘housing stress’ – paying more than 30 per cent of their gross incomes on housing – rose from 19 per cent in 2003-04 to 22 per cent in 2009–10.

– Lone person households are expected to be the fastest growing household type in coming decades.

– 105,000 Australians were homeless in 2011.

Deep and persistent disadvantage

The report also looks at the complexity in disadvantage, with 5 per cent of adults experiencing multiple disadvantage. This too is the focus of the Productivity Commission report, which drills down into the characteristics and extent of deep disadvantage in Australia, noting that disadvantage is a ‘multi-dimensional concept’: about impoverished lives (including lack of opportunity) not just low income.

The report’s nuanced discussion about differences in educational performance between children of low and high socioeconomic backgrounds saw one front page newspaper report declare ‘Genes a reason poor kids struggle at school’.  That in turn attracted this warning at The Conversation against ‘blaming the victim’.

As does Australia’s Welfare 2013, the Productivity Commission paper identifies lone parents and their children, Indigenous Australians, people with a long-term health condition or disability, and people with low educational attainment as most vulnerable to long-term disadvantage.

It also notes most people in these groups are able to avoid deep and persistent disadvantage, through: their personal capabilities and family circumstances; the support they receive; the community where they live (and the opportunities it offers); life events; and the broader economic and social environment.

Household income distribution

Finally, new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on Household Income and Income Distribution 2011-12 showed that income inequality in Australia has decreased. This is good news, of course, but – as this analysis by my VCOSS colleague points out – the ABS digs into the data further to show a more complex picture about ‘low economic resource’ households.

Marie McInerney works part-time as a writer and editor for the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS).

 

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