The Salvation Army has earned high credibility in social work for the practical, non-political way that it goes about its mission. It deserves the same credit for social research on the strength of its annual state of the nation report. The latest, featured in the Herald yesterday, offers a more balanced snapshot of our society than we get from research that sets out to find something going wrong.
The Sallies' report suggests a great deal is going right. Educational disparities are narrowing. Gaps between passing rates from rich and poor schools, and Maori and non-Maori, are not as wide as they used to be. A higher proportion of Maori and Pacific children are enrolled in pre-school education. More school leavers are working or getting a qualification.
Fewer teenage girls are getting pregnant. While the number giving birth has been falling for many years, more recently the number having abortions has been falling too. That is good news, as is the decline in infant mortality, especially for Maori. We were even drinking and gambling a little less.
Employment is increasing, not only among the young (up 9.4 per cent for those aged 15-24 last year), but the proportion of the over-65 population who are working has leaped from 15 per cent to 21 per cent in the past five years. That means more than a fifth of national superannuitants with super gold cards have not retired. Most of them will be in the 65-70 age bracket and could support themselves if the qualifying age for superannuation was raised.
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Were it not for the rising number of pensioners with the post-war baby boom passing 65, welfare costs would be dropping. A 5 per cent decline in numbers on other benefits last year was more than offset by the increase in super recipients.
The drop in younger beneficiary numbers may be due in part to the Government's more stringent work-seeking requirements. The number on the sole parent benefit fell 9.4 per cent last year. This may not translate into a decline in child poverty, the report cautions, because about half the children living below the statistical poverty line in 2012 were in wage-earners' households.
Incomes rose 2.6 per cent on average last year while the cost of living rose 1.6 per cent. Employees, with an average rise of 3.1 per cent, did better than the self-employed. The gap between the highest-paid employees and the lowest widened slightly over the year, which means the poor did not get poorer, they got relatively poorer.
The report shows that affording a house in Auckland and Christchurch has become even harder than it was at the height of the last boom. The median Auckland house price now exceeds 10 years of the average gross weekly wage. Household debt is rising again as economic growth gathers pace. The average household owes $121,200, giving a ratio of debt to earnings not quite as bad as five years ago but still nearly 150 per cent of the average household's annual income.
Housing costs and some other adverse trends leave plenty of problems for social policy but it is important to acknowledge progress too.
The Salvation Army's findings reflect a rising economic tide. Most boats are rising, though not all. Maori unemployment is still above 12 per cent and among Pacific people the rate is higher. The police are dealing with more child abuse and violence than ever, possibly because more of it is reported to them these days.
But it is the young people who offer most hope: fewer teen pregnancies, fewer on benefits, less drinking, more in education, employment or training. As they become taxpayers, they should not be having to pay pensions to the rising number of people who have not yet retired.