Thursday, August 28, 2008

Social Report 2008

The 2008 Social Report has been released, and I've spent the last half-hour or so digesting it. The headline news is that income inequality - as measured by the ratio between the incomes of the top 20 and bottom 20 percent of people - has dropped. It's only slight, but its the first decrease since 1988, and it is entirely attributable to the government's policy of boosting incomes at the lower end of the scale by hiking the minimum wage and helping out with Working For Families (it is not attributable to lower unemployment, as that hasn't changed significantly since 2004). So, a big success for Labour, and it shows that inequality can be reversed. But despite that, we're still at the levels we had in the mid-90's, which even then were unacceptable, so we're looking at a turning supertanker rather than a problem which can be solved overnight.

Also in the "success" category is a marked decrease in relative poverty, with the proportion of households earning less than 60% of the median income dropping from 17% to 13%. Again, it's directly attributable to government policy, but again it's a turning supertanker - we're still above 1990 levels, so we have a long way to go yet.

In the "meh" category, the employment rate has continued its climb. I see this as lost leisure rather than as necessarily a Good Thing, but OTOH looking at the (2006) work-life balance satisfaction data, most people seem pretty satisfied with it (though I'm waiting for a time-series to see if dissatisfaction rises in the long-term, or falls due to more flexible employment policies).

Finally, in the "bad news" category (and strangely absent from the government's press release), housing affordability has declined. Worse, we have a drinking problem, with rates of hazardous alcohol use (as measured by the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test [PDF], sample here) rising across all age groups except the 45-54 bracket. And it's serious - looking at the scoring method, you don't hit the danger level even with sustained moderate drinking (you can have a glass or two of wine every night and dinnertime, and still score only 4); you need to be having actual problems to get into that category. So, it is a real problem; the question is what we can do about it. And on this, I think we have to work on changing patterns of consumption and educating users rather than pursuing the counterproductive prohibition mentality...

Overall, the Social Report shows that most areas are fine, reflecting Labour's generally good record on these issues. But its real value will come in allowing us to see the impacts of any future right-wing economic changes across a variety of statistics. Which makes you wonder whether National will try and get rid of it...