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Australia spent $137 billion on welfare in 2008–09 (excluding unemployment benefits)—more than its $113 billion spending on health in that year. This was driven by a changing and complex society and the short term impact of the Australian Government’s response to the global financial crisis, according to the latest report on the nation’s welfare by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Of the total welfare spend, $94 billion was for direct cash payments to citizens, with 72% of cash payments ($68 billion) being directed to families and older Australians.

The biennial report, Australia’s welfare 2011, presents the latest national statistics on welfare services and factors influencing wellbeing in Australia. It was launched in Canberra by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin.

AIHW Director and CEO David Kalisch said that while Australians generally enjoy a good standard of living, several features of our society require the delivery of services to support those not doing so well.

‘Australia’s ageing population, its shifting geographic profile, changing workforce and education patterns, and developing trends in family structure, have all contributed to an ever-changing, varied, and complex society—one with welfare needs as diverse as its people’, Mr Kalisch said.

‘Population ageing is expected to continue over the next two decades as the proportion of people aged over 65 is projected to rise from its current level of around 1 in 7 to 1 in 5.

‘An ageing population can lead to different patterns of work. We are already seeing that older people are staying in the workforce in increasing numbers—in 2010–11, 62% of men and 44% of women aged 60–64 were still working.

‘But even though we have new figures in our report showing that we are living 2–3 more years without disability than just over a decade ago, the number of years lived with a disability has remained constant. An ageing population is likely to lead to more disability overall, pointing to a greater need for informal carers as well as for formal aged care services.

‘We also have the situation that many informal carers are themselves ageing, with 60% of primary carers aged over 55’, Mr Kalisch said.

The report shows housing presenting particular challenges, with affordability falling over the last 10 years. Between 2001 and 2011, median house prices rose by 147% while median household disposable income rose by 57%. These affordability issues flow on to the private rental market, which in turn can present difficulties for low income households.

Between 1995 and 2010 home ownership (with and without a mortgage) fell slightly from 72% to 69%, and private rentals rose from 18% to 24% of all households. Social housing made up the balance, with around 400,000 dwellings occupied in June 2010, and around 250,000 applicants waiting for allocations or transfers within the social housing system.

‘Yet, the average number of bedrooms per dwelling has risen over the last 30 years from 2.8 to 3.1, while the average number of residents per household has fallen from 3.1 to 2.6, and couples without children is the fastest-growing family type’, Mr Kalisch said.

‘Meanwhile, despite popular belief, marriage rates are steady and divorce rates are down slightly, although people are marrying later (31.5 is the median marrying age for men, 29.2 for women).

‘And, confirming popular belief, children are staying at home longer, with 10% of children living with their families in 2009–10 being aged over 25, up from 7% in 1997, just 13 years earlier.’

Australia’s welfare 2011 shows that despite an overall high quality of life in Australia by many measures of wellbeing, certain population groups continue to be disadvantaged, particularly groups with relatively low rates of employment, and/or low educational attainment levels.

These include Indigenous Australians, people outside capital cities, people with disability and their carers, lone parents, social housing tenants and recent migrants.

‘The good news, however, is that for many people poverty is not long-term’, Mr Kalisch said.

Around 1 in 3 people could be classified as being poor at some point between 2001 and 2008, that is, they had an income less than half of the national median. But for the majority, poverty lasted 1–2 years. Just over 2% of the population experienced persistent poverty throughout the entire period.’

Other Australia’s welfare 2011 highlights include:

  • Welfare spending in Australia, at 12.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007, was lower than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 13.9%. But spending on families, at 2.4% of GDP, was almost double the OECD average of 1.3%.
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of Australians lived in capital cities in 2010. There is now strong evidence of a ‘generation gap’ in regional areas, with our urban population younger on average than in country areas.
  • The average household had a net wealth of $719,600 in 2009–10, of which 41% was the net value of the family home (value minus any mortgage), and 16% was superannuation.
  • Educational attainment continues to increase, especially among women. In 2010, more than half the population aged 15–64 years had a non-school qualification.
  • While Indigenous students are still less likely than non-Indigenous students to remain in school until Year 12, the gap is narrowing.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are over-represented as users of homelessness services.
  • More than half a million people (571,000) were employed by community services organisations in June 2009, equivalent to 362,000 full-time positions. Around 325,000 volunteers gave an average of around 78 hours of service a year to these organisations.
  • In 2006 around one-third of all adults performed general volunteer work at least once a year.

Canberra, 22 November 2011

Further information: Jess Cumming: (02) 6249 5033 or 0401 769 793

Elizabeth Ingram: (02) 6249 5048 or 0431 871 337

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer 02 6244 1032

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