Welfare report card: Australia’s Welfare 2017 puts our wellbeing under the microscope

While Australia continues to perform well in many measures of wellbeing—such as health, environmental quality and civic engagement—we don’t do as well when it comes to other key measures such as ‘work-life balance’ and Indigenous disadvantage, according to the latest 2-yearly report card on our wellbeing from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Australia’s welfare 2017, was launched today in Canberra by Senator the Hon. Zed Seselja, Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs.

‘Australia’s Welfare 2017 shows that while we have made some inroads into achieving work-life balance, we are still among the bottom third of OECD countries when it comes to working long hours,’ AIHW Director and CEO Barry Sandison said.

In 2015, 20% of men and 7% of women in paid employment worked 50 hours or more per week, down from 26% and 8%, respectively, in 2004. However this still leaves us at 27th in the OECD (out of 35 countries).

Perhaps of more significance is that it is not the number of hours worked that matters but whether these hours accord with an individual’s work preferences.

‘The report illustrates that regardless of the number of hours worked, if an individual’s preferences did not align with their working hours, they reported lower levels of satisfaction and poorer mental health than individuals whose preferences aligned with their working hours.

‘This was true for both underemployed and overemployed workers,’ Mr Sandison said.

Home ownership across the generations

Despite relatively low interest rates over the last twenty years or so, the overall home ownership rate has been declining, particularly for young people.

‘The rates of home ownership for different cohorts vary markedly. Not surprisingly, the steepest decline in home ownership rates was experienced by people aged 25–34 years, declining from 51% in 2006 to 45% in 2016. The 35–44 year age group followed closely declining from 68% to 62% across the same period,’ Mr Sandison said.

‘The financial impact of increased house prices and higher education costs are just some of the factors affecting the ability of younger generations to save for a deposit’.

Interestingly, while home ownership is the most common tenure type in Australia, we rank in the lowest quarter of OECD countries when it comes to levels of home ownership (with or without a mortgage). 

This is largely the result of home ownership rates increasing in many OECD countries over recent decades as the make-up and shape of their households have changed and mortgage market innovations have been introduced. Over the same period, Australia’s rate of home ownership remained relatively stable.

Welfare spending and workforce

The report shows that other welfare services (which include aged care, homelessness and housing services, disability services, and child and youth services) also remain important to Australians’ wellbeing, particularly for certain groups.

In 2015–16, about $157 billion was spent on welfare, including cash payments (such as unemployment benefits) and service delivery. This is up from $117 billion in 2006–07, with welfare spending now comprising a larger share of the economy (9.5% of Gross Domestic Product).

The welfare workforce (which includes childcare services, aged carers and disability workers) has also grown. In 2015, 478,000 people were employed in the welfare workforce, up 84% since 2005.

The rate of growth of the welfare workforce was four times that of the total Australian workforce over this period.

‘On top of this, there are 2.7 million informal carers in Australia—or 1 in every 9 of us. Informal care is now the most common form of support for older Australians,’ Mr Sandison said.

Welfare services and areas of need

Australia’s investment in a broad ranging set of social support systems is significant and for some groups of people, access to these support systems is particularly important.

‘The report identified that family violence is one of the key drivers of homelessness, with 38% of people accessing services experiencing family violence.  Over the past five years, the number of people accessing homelessness services who have experienced family and domestic violence increased by a third,’ Mr Sandison said.

There has also been an increase in the number of children in out-of-home care (such as foster care), rising by 17% between 2012 and 2016.

Indigenous Australians remain overrepresented in the child protection and youth justice systems, and have a greater need for the assistance of social housing services.

‘Educational disadvantage remains high among Indigenous children, but rates of Year 12 attainment have increased—in 2008, 45% of Indigenous young people held a Year 12 qualification, but this rose to 62% in 2014–15. The rate for non-Indigenous young people remains higher, at 86%,’ Mr Sandison said.

Education and employment

The report shows that, overall, education is the backbone of good employment prospects—and increasingly so. Jobs are becoming more highly skilled, increasing the demand for a more qualified workforce.

‘In 2016, people with higher levels of educational attainment were more likely to be employed—more than 80% of people with a non-school qualification were employed, compared with 54% of people whose highest qualification was Year 10 or below,’ Mr Sandison said.

While this rate has been fairly stable for those with higher qualifications, people with lower levels of educational attainment were less likely to be employed in 2016 than they were in 2008.

Even with higher levels of education, it is taking longer for university graduates to find full-time work. In 2008, 85% of graduates were working full-time within 4 months of graduating compared to 71% in 2016.

‘Australia’s Welfare, a flagship biennial report from the Institute, brings together a valuable national commentary on key areas of welfare in Australia. Organisations like the AIHW and its highly qualified staff are critical in providing the evidence base needed by policy makers, service providers and the community,’ Mr Sandison concluded.

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