New Zealand is heading "off the track" on housing, child poverty and imprisonment despite dramatic gains on some other social indicators, a new report says. The Salvation Army's annual "state of the nation" report says youth offending and teen pregnancy have more than halved, jobs and real wages are rising, alcohol consumption and drink-driving are falling, and welfare rolls are the lowest since 2007. But it says homelessness "unseen in more than a generation", persistent child poverty and a record imprisonment rate point to the country "heading off the track".
The good news
Youth offending (mainly by males) and teen pregnancy (where girls pay the price) are the twin indicators of how young people are faring, and both have been improving hugely. Charges proven against offenders in the Youth Court plunged by 60 per cent from a peak of 3705 in 2007-08 to 1485 in the past year, although this reflects increasing use of police diversion so it may not indicate a real change in youth crime. Teen pregnancy rates plunged by 51 per cent from a peak of 5.9 per cent of young women aged 15-19 in 2008 to a record low of just 2.9 per cent in 2015. Auckland University surveys of secondary school students have also shown dramatic improvements over the past 20 years, with lower rates of fighting, bullying, binge-drinking, cigarette and cannabis smoking, and sexual activity. The youth suicide rate has also trended downwards since unemployment peaked in the mid-1990s.
Jobs and incomes are "the success story in our recent social progress", the report says. The employment rate in the 20-64 working age group hit a record 80.1 per cent last year, even higher than the 2007 pre-recession peak of 78.6 per cent. Employment in the 65-plus group has leapt from 14.1 per cent in 2007 to 23.1 per cent. But 12 per cent of youths aged 15-24 are still not in employment, education or training (NEET), down from a recession peak of 14.1 per cent in 2009 but still above the 2007 rate of 10.9 per cent. This is because some regions are missing out on the new jobs. The NEET rate is down to pre-recession levels in Auckland (10.8 per cent) and Canterbury (8.9 per cent), but is still much higher in Gisborne/Hawke's Bay (16.9 per cent) and Northland (19 per cent).
Employees' average incomes rose by 14.3 per cent in the five years to last December, from $864 a week to $987, 9 per cent faster than consumer prices.
Drink and drugs
The average Kiwi adult drank only 9.33 litres of pure alcohol last year, 9 per cent less than five years ago and the lowest since 1999. Drink-driving has declined by almost a third, from 0.96 per cent of all drivers tested at roadsides five years ago to 0.69 per cent last year. However, recent NZ health surveys suggest that a stable 14 per cent of adults are still using cannabis, and the small minority using methamphetamine ('P') may have ticked up slightly after shrinking from 2.7 per cent of adults in 2003 to around 1 per cent since 2011.
Welfare beneficiaries have risen and fallen with unemployment over the past 20 years, dropping from 17 per cent of the 18-64 working age group in December 1999 to 10 per cent by 2007, rising again to 13.1 per cent in 2010 and falling back to 10.3 per cent last December. Tougher work requirements have cut the numbers on sole-parent benefits from 3.1 per cent of the working age group when the National Government took office at the end of 2008 to 2.3 per cent last December - the lowest since 1983. However, the report notes that welfare numbers have declined faster than unemployment in recent years, suggesting that not all those pushed off benefits have found jobs. "Just what has happened to these people, and whether they are better or worse off, is a mystery."
The bad news
Housing has become harder to find and less affordable in Auckland, but the situation is more stable elsewhere. The report says Auckland's population grew by 181,500 in the five years to last September. At the 2006 census average of three people per dwelling, it needed 60,500 more homes to cope. In fact, only 39,627 new homes were consented - a shortfall of about 20,000. In contrast, the population everywhere else grew by 174,500, requiring 58,167 more homes. In fact, 89,907 new homes were consented - more than enough. The result is that both house prices and rents have risen faster than incomes in Auckland, but have been stable in most other places. Average Auckland rents jumped from $392 to $490 a week in the five years to December. An average Auckland wage-earner worked 14.2 hours a week to pay the rent five years ago, and now works 16 hours just to pay rent. For comparison, the average hours required to pay the rent increased only from 10.8 to 11.8 hours a week in Christchurch, and from 11.2 to 11.5 hours a week in Wellington. Report author Alan Johnson said the Government should be more "hands-on" to fill Auckland's housing gap. "Maybe the state has to be more active in land development instead of relying almost entirely on the market."
Some measures suggest that the numbers of children living below the poverty line are dwindling, as you would expect as jobs and incomes have grown since the recession. Children living in homes earning below 60 per cent of a fixed poverty line of 60 per cent of 2007 median incomes have declined steadily from 26 per cent of children in 2010 to 21 per cent in 2015. Children in "material hardship", based on actual needs such as being cold and not going to the doctor, shrank from 20 per cent to 14 per cent. But the most widely used measure - the numbers in homes earning below 60 per cent of the current median income after housing costs - shows no clear trend. It was 30 per cent of children in 2010, 24 per cent in 2013, and 28 per cent in 2015. However, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said the report did not take account the $25 a week increase in benefits for families with children last April. Poverty data for 2016 will be released later this year.
After declining slightly in the three years to 2013 in line with falling crime rates, prisoners have suddenly jumped again to a record high of 9914 at the end of last year. This has taken officials by surprise. In June 2014 the Justice Ministry forecast a continued decline to only 8130 prisoners by last September - 1700 fewer than the actual prison mustier at that date. About three-quarters of the extra prisoners in the past two years have been on remand, waiting to be heard in court. And three-quarters of the increase in those actually sentenced to jail by the courts were jailed for violent offences, and half of the remaining quarter were jailed for breaching non-violence orders. Victoria University criminologist Professor John Pratt said the trends reflected "much stricter enforcement of domestic violence orders". "Victims of those assaults have felt themselves largely unprotected in the past, and it's great that the police are taking strong action to prevent that," he said. He said recent law changes had also made it much harder to get bail on remand, and for prisoners to get early release on parole.