Monday, August 23, 2004

The Social Report

The Ministry of Social Development released its annual Social Report over the weekend. It's a grab-bag of statistics aimed at helping to pin down the rather fuzzy concept of "social wellbeing" (defined as "those aspects of life that we as a society agree contribute to our individual happiness, quality of life, and welfare"). There's both good news and bad news in it, and predictably political parties are picking the areas they care about and trumpeting the results accordingly. I've spent the morning skimming it, and here's my interpretation of the results.

Firstly, it's generally positive. As Stuff pointed out,

We rank in the top half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for two-thirds of the indicators where data can be compared with other countries

which isn't anything to be ashamed of. More importantly, the satisfaction ratings - with work/life balance and with leisure - were very good. If you think there's more to life than work and money, then these are very positive statistics. Stuff labels it "complacency", but there is nothing wrong with feeling satisfied about your life - and anyone who thinks differently is trying to sell you something.

Most of the criticism from National has focused on the per-capita GDP/GNI data, and our low relative ranking in the OECD "league table". This completely ignores the fact that there has been a very positive trend in that area for the past few years, with growth well above the OECD average. It also ignores the fact, made tellingly by Greyshade, that league tables don't matter.

Their criticism of average wages suffers from the same problem - criticise the level, ignore the very positive trend (average wages have grown by 10% after inflation since 1999, with much of that growth occuring between 2002 and 2003). Their criticism of adult literacy rates suffers from a different problem: old data. The literacy statistics date from the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey. Which makes Judith Collins' juxtaposition of the two and claim that "[y]ou would expect an improvement in some of these indicators in the current economic environment" more than a little disingenuous - one area has improved significantly and the other hasn't been remeasured for eight years. Either she hasn't read the report herself, or she thinks that nobody else will. Neither is a very good look, especially for someone with ministerial aspirations.

Old data is also the cause of the Greens' criticisms on income inequality. The data there is based on the 2001 Household Economic Survey, which is conducted every three years. Again, the reason we haven't seen progress recently is because we haven't bothered to look. IIRC, the next HES will be conducted in September 2003, so next year's Social Report may finally have something new to say.

(In fact, looking at the explanatory notes, 17 of the 43 indicators could not be updated this year. Surely MSD can do better than that?)

What the Social Report is good for is compiling a variety of data from numerous areas to give a broad overall picture - and that picture is generally good. The real black mark is in the area of child abuse, and the government needs to do a lot more to fix that, but overall things are moving in the right direction.