Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

State of our nation: Crime, jobs and our kids - things are looking up

The Salvation Army's annual 'state of the nation' report, a stock-take of New Zealand social trends, contains some surprising good news, mixed with warnings about child poverty and housing. Simon Collins takes a look.

The average household debt has increased again in the last two years.
The average household debt has increased again in the last two years.

Crime and punishment

Overall crime
Recorded crime rates dropped by 8.1 per cent last year to 8202 crimes for every 100,000 people, the lowest crime rate since 1979. The biggest reductions were in theft and property damage, but there were slight increases in sexual offences.
Rating: B+

Serious crime
Violent offending has also fallen consistently from a peak of 1184 offences for every 100,000 people in 2010 to 1053 last year. But the reduction in the last year was an insignificant 0.4 per cent.

The report shows that the peak between 2008 and 2010 was almost entirely due to increasing recorded domestic violence, reflecting reduced police tolerance of "domestics" rather than any underlying real increase in violence. Violent offences in the home jumped by 20 per cent from 2008 to 2010 and have fallen back by 5 per cent in the past three years.
Rating: C-

Sentencing and imprisonment
Fewer people have been jailed each year since 2010, reflecting the declining crime rate. But longer sentences have kept the number of prisoners stable at between 8400 and 8800 over the past four years, and the imprisonment rate actually rose marginally last year from 194 to 195 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Maori are still 5.7 times as likely as non-Maori to be in jail, a ratio that hasn't budged in five years.

The Maori imprisonment rate has risen from 605 prisoners for every 100,000 people in 2008 to 645 last year.
Rating: C-

Recidivism
The Government has set a target of reducing reoffending by released prisoners and people with community-based sentences by 25 per cent between 2011 and 2017. It claimed a combined reduction of 11 per cent in its first two years to June last year.

But the Salvation Army says the improvements for ex-prisoners have been "very modest". The proportion jailed again within a year fell only from 45.3 per cent in 2011 to 43.3 per cent in 2012, and actually rose again last year to 44.2 per cent.

Those jailed again within two years declined from 39.2 per cent to 37 per cent in 2012 and increased again last year to 37.3 per cent.
Rating: C

Fewer people have been jailed each year since 2010. Photo / APN
Fewer people have been jailed each year since 2010. Photo / APN

Housing

Availability
Auckland's population grew by four people for every extra house built in the region in the year to last September. This was the best ratio for at least five years, after increases of 7.6 people for every extra house in 2009, 6.5 in 2010, 6.2 in 2011 and 4.3 in 2012. However, this is still less than the average of three people in each house in the 2006 and 2013 censuses, so if that is taken as the desired ratio of people to houses then house-building is still failing to keep up with population growth. The report estimates that the shortfall grew by a further 1800 houses last year, to an accumulated total shortfall of 16,800 houses since 2008.
Rating: D

Affordability
Houses are becoming sharply less affordable in Auckland and Christchurch, but, surprisingly, they are still becoming more affordable in the rest of the country. Last year Aucklanders spent an average of 18.4 per cent of their incomes on housing, up from 17.8 per cent the year before. In Christchurch, the increase was from 12.7 per cent to 13.3 per cent, but across New Zealand as a whole, lower interest rates helped to push housing costs down from 16 per cent of incomes to 15.4 per cent, the lowest for many years. Median rents have jumped by 16.7 per cent in Auckland since June 2009, and by 35.7 per cent in Christchurch. But the national average increase was only 13.3 per cent, much the same as the increase in wages. Buying a median house in Auckland now costs more than 10 years of the average gross weekly wage, slightly longer than the previous peak of just under 10 years at the height of the last price boom in late 2007.
Rating: C+

Debt
Average household debt fell slightly from 2008 to 2011, but has increased again in the past two years. The latest increase to an average of $121,200 by last September was up 2.4 per cent in a year, or 0.6 per cent after adjusting for inflation. Over a longer term, household debt ballooned from 121.6 per cent of annual after-tax income in 2003 to 151.9 per cent of income in 2008, and has come back only slightly since the recession to 147.6 per cent of income today.
Rating: C-

Notifications to Child, Youth and Family of children at risk of abuse or neglect fell slightly last year.
Notifications to Child, Youth and Family of children at risk of abuse or neglect fell slightly last year.

Our children

Child poverty
A combination of tougher welfare rules pushing sole parents into paid work, and new jobs finally offering a "pull" factor, reduced the numbers of working-aged beneficiaries by 5.1 per cent last year, from 339,095 at the end of 2012 to 321,869. Sole-parent beneficiaries dropped by 9.4 per cent from 85,939 to 77,843.

Based on historical numbers of children for each kind of beneficiary, the Salvation Army estimates that the number of children in welfare-dependent homes dropped by about 8.2 per cent, from 220,500 to 202,500. As a proportion of all children under 18, that's a drop of 1.5 per cent, from 20.5 per cent to 19 per cent - the first improvement since the recession began in 2008. The report cautions that it's too soon to jump to conclusions because only half of the children living in poverty in 2012 were in families on welfare. Working families have had a slight rise in real wages on average on the past year, but any consequent drop in child poverty may be patchy because of the way housing costs have risen - much faster in Auckland and Christchurch than elsewhere.
Rating: D

Children at risk
Notifications to Child, Youth and Family of children at risk of abuse or neglect fell slightly last year, but the report says this appears to be due to police reporting changes. Cases where abuse or neglect was substantiated rose by 3.7 per cent, from 22,172 to 22,984 cases, reversing a 0.5 per cent decline in 2012 which was the first decline for many years. All kinds of substantiated abuse have increased inexorably over the past four years - emotional abuse up 16.8 per cent since 2009 to 12,777 cases, neglect up 15.6 per cent to 5405 cases, physical abuse up 17.1 per cent to 3343 cases and sexual abuse up 29.6 per cent to 1459 cases.
Rating: C-

Children & violence
Police records show dramatic increases in assaults on children (up 68 per cent since 2008 to 2667 assaults), sexual offences against children (up 43 per cent to 1976) and criminal neglect (up 42 per cent to 569). But these figures may reflect changes in police practice, especially since the "anti-smacking" law in 2007 which removed the exemption for parents using force against children for "correction". "The amendment of section 59 of the Crimes Act in 2007 appears to have led to an increase in the numbers of recorded offences for non-injury assaults on children," the report says. "Since June 2008, the numbers of such offences have risen by nearly 160 per cent - from an average of almost 450 such offences recorded annually between 2002 and 2007 to an annual average of 1150 recorded offences." But the report says this change is still "very minor" in the context of more than 100,000 prosecutions for all crimes each year. On the other hand, violent crime by young men aged 14 to 16 dropped by a quarter for non-Maori youths, from 234 offences per 10,000 youths in 2008 to 172 last year. The drop for Maori youths was less dramatic, from 664 offences per 10,000 youths to 593, so the gap between Maori and non-Maori youths widened. Maori youths were also 1.5 times more likely than non-Maori youths to be prosecuted once they were caught.
Rating: D

Early childhood education
Government efforts to boost early childhood education in areas of high Maori and Pacific populations appear to be paying off. The proportion of Maori children under 5 enrolled in early childhood rose from 42.5 per cent in 2008 to 45.5 per cent in 2012, and jumped by another 4 per cent to 49.5 per cent last year. This is still well behind the non-Maori enrolment rate of 70.7 per cent, but the gap between Maori and non-Maori rates narrowed slightly last year to 21.2 per cent.
Rating: A-

Educational achievement
New Zealand's globally high disparities in school learning rates have now been narrowing fairly consistently for a decade since the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) was introduced between 2002 and 2004, giving students a chance to re-sit exams until they passed each unit. At the extremes, students in the richest (deciles 8-10) schools are still far more likely to leave school with at least NCEA level 2 - 87.2 per cent of them, compared with only 61.2 per cent in decile 1-3 schools. But the gap has narrowed from 29.4 per cent in 2009, and 26.5 per cent in 2011, to 26 per cent in 2012. The gap between Maori and non-Maori students on the same test narrowed from 27.1 per cent in 2009 to 24.9 per cent. But the gaps are still wide: only 54.6 per cent of Maori students left with at least NCEA level 2 in 2012, compared with 79.5 per cent of non-Maori. "At the present rate of progress it will take a generation before Maori achievement levels are comparable with those of other New Zealanders," the report says.
Rating: C+

Infant mortality
Infant mortality - babies who die before their first birthday - has fallen in each of the past four years, from 5.2 deaths for every 1000 babies in 2010 to an historic low of 4.2 last year. The improvement has been even sharper for Maori, from 6.2 in 2009 to 4.7 last year.
Rating: B+

Teen pregnancy
Teen pregnancy rates, which trended upwards for 30 years until 2008, have suddenly plunged since then to their lowest rate since the mid-1980s. The teen birth rate has trended downwards throughout the period, but it was offset by a rising abortion rate until 2007, which has suddenly fallen.
Rating: A-

The latest unemployment  number was reported as 6 per cent after adjusting for the usual seasonal variations. Photo / Geoff Sloan
The latest unemployment number was reported as 6 per cent after adjusting for the usual seasonal variations. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Work and income

Employment
Job numbers finally rose significantly last year, by 4.8 per cent to 2.31 million, for the first time since the recession began. Young people aged 15 to 24 in jobs jumped by 9.4 per cent, lowering the numbers not in employment, education or training ("NEET") from 13.9 per cent a year ago to 11.4 per cent. At the other end of the age range, the employment rate of those aged 65-plus kept on rising right through the recession from 15 per cent in 2008 to just over 21 per cent today.
Rating: C+

Unemployment
The official unemployment rate dropped from 6.8 per cent at the end of 2012 to 5.9 per cent a year later, although the latest number was reported as 6 per cent after adjusting for the usual seasonal variations. The European unemployment rate of 4.6 per cent is now one of the lowest in the world, but the burden of unemployment is still felt especially by Maori (12.8 per cent) and Pacific people (13.9 per cent). The Asian rate is 5.8 per cent.
Rating: C+

Incomes
The "average wage" is usually said to be almost $1100 a week, or $57,000 a year, but this year the Salvation Army says the best figure to use is the average for employees only, excluding employers and the self-employed. That was only $920.23 a week ($47,852 a year) in December, up 3.1 per cent from a year earlier. After adjusting for 1.6 per cent inflation, that was a real wage increase of 1.5 per cent - small, but continuing a steady upwards trend in real wages that began from the bottom of the recession in June 2011. Income inequality has widened slightly. The average worker in the highest-paid sector, banking and insurance, earned $39.86 an hour at the end of last year - 2.29 times the average of $14.71 for the lowest-paid workers, in accommodation and food services, up from a ratio of 2.16 times the lowest-paid sector in 2008.
Rating: C+

Benefits and pensions
The 5 per cent drop in working-age beneficiaries last year was offset by an increase in superannuitants, pushing the combined total up by 1 per cent to 971,000.
Rating: C

Living costs & food poverty
Despite fewer people unemployed and on benefits, the Salvation Army gave out slightly more food parcels, up 0.9 per cent to 55,731. However, the numbers have been broadly steady since a rapid rise when the recession hit in 2008-10, and the number of families who received food actually fell slightly last year.
Rating: C-

Social hazards

Alcohol
Alcohol available for consumption rose by 1.8 per cent per person last year, but this followed a fall in 2012 and is virtually unchanged since 2008. Recent research by the Health Promotion Agency suggests that Kiwi attitudes and behaviours around alcohol are improving. Adult non-drinkers increased from 16 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent in 2011, and the proportion of drinkers who drank seven or more standard drinks in one session in the past year fell from 31 per cent to 25 per cent. Drink-driving convictions dropped by 11 per cent last year, and the proportion of drivers tested for alcohol who failed the test and were convicted fell from 1.2 per cent in 2008 to 0.8 per cent last year. Rating: C+

Drug-related crime
Recorded drug-related offences dropped by 21 per cent last year to the lowest level since 1995, but the report says this probably "reflects changing police priorities", rather than a real decline in drug use.
Rating: C

Gambling
Poker machine numbers have declined steadily since a law change in 2003 gave local councils powers to set "sinking lids". Non-casino pokie numbers fell from 79 machines for every 10,000 people in 2002 to 50 by the end of last year. Total spending on gambling per person has dropped 14 per cent in the past five years and stands at $615 for every adult aged 18 and over. However, these gains will be offset by an extra 230 pokie machines in SkyCity casino as part of a deal with the Government to build a new convention centre.
Rating: C

READ THE FULL REPORT ONLINE HERE

- NZ Herald

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