Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Measuring well-being in New Zealand

As part of the International Year of Statistics, this morning our own Statistics New Zealand put on a breakfast function in Wellington, "Dollars and Sense: Social and economic perspectives on well-being in New Zealand", emceed by Radio New Zealand's Simon Morton. Despite the ungodly hour (7.15am) and a miserable Wellington morning, it was well attended.
Stats' Philip Walker led off, talking about some of the results from the 2012 General Social Survey (you can find the main results in Stats' August press release). His main point (for me) was the cumulative or multi-factor nature of both happiness and unhappiness: Stats has provided (and Philip bravely demonstrated live) an interactive tool where you can see how people's life satisfaction is linked to their health, income, relationship and housing, and you can see the cumulative impact of being okay across all four dimensions. Virtually nobody is dissatisfied with their lives if they're okay across all four factors.
Then we had lawyer Mai Chen, who talked mainly about the importance of social capital to a society's happy and productive functioning. One interesting idea was that social capital (things like trust) aren't fixed in stone: she wondered, for example, whether people's collective expectations around what governments ought to do, and how they do it, mightn't be changing, instancing the issue of potential compensation for the Pike River victims' families. It mightn't be a strict obligation on the government to pay out, and there are also ongoing social expectations that governments ought to be prudent managers of the public purse and not scatter cash to the four winds, but she sensed that there may well be a growing sense of moral (as opposed to strict legal) obligation developing in the community around both the substance and process of government behaviour.
Shamubeel Eaqub from the NZIER was up next, and his main points were that, first, the impact and benefits of the recent economic recovery have been unevenly spread, with higher-skill occupations in Auckland  in particular, and the construction trades in Christchurch, streets ahead of other areas, and, second, that there is generally not enough attention paid to the distribution dimension of aggregate macroeconomic data.
And finally we heard from Major Campbell Roberts from the Salvation Army, who echoed Philip's earlier point about the crippling effect of struggling with multiple disadvantages at once, which he illustrated with a description of the Salvation Army's typical clientele in South Auckland (female with children, Polynesian, poor, no-one in the household in full-time work, in growing debt, pressured by housing costs, and with mental health or substance abuse issues in the family). And he wondered why we couldn't get a clearer statistical view of this group, saying that "what is important to important people" tends to get covered in the official statistics, and that they don't cover enough of what is important to "unimportant" people.
At our table (economists mostly) we wondered about Major Roberts' point in particular: why isn't there a regularly published, in depth, longitudinal study of a large cross-section of the poorer end of the community? And could the Census form the basis of one? I'm told by Someone Who Tends To Know These Things that there is, indeed, a project underway to match data from one Census to the next to see what happened to individuals and households: more than that I don't know at this stage, but it'll make interesting reading if it ever gets done.
In the meantime Stats is publishing more about our social fabric: Liz MacPherson, the Government Statistician, announced that Stats has just put up a new web page showing the latest data across a wide range of social indicators.

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