4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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'. . . growth is not an end in itself, but rather an instrument for creating better conditions of life.'

Ministerial Council of OECD, 19701
A major driving force in human activity is the desire for optimal health, for better living conditions and improved quality of life. Individuals seek to achieve this for themselves, for their family, and for the communities of which they are a part. A fundamental charge of government is to create better conditions of life for the population, and many community groups and private organisations also work towards this objective. All these players need information to guide their decisions in this endeavour. A central role of the ABS, as the national statistical agency, is to provide such information by producing statistics that describe the wellbeing of individuals and of society as a whole. To this end, the ABS provides statistics that are concerned with living conditions and social arrangements, that monitor progress towards social goals, and inform the decisions of governments, community groups, organisations and individuals as they work to create better conditions of life.

Human welfare is intimately connected with the generation of wealth that economic activity allows, and with the state of the natural environment, on which all life depends. Thus the system of social statistics described in this book complements the system of national accounts used to analyse and evaluate the performance of the economy, and frameworks used to measure the state of the environment. All these statistical systems continue to evolve over time. Satellite accounts and social accounting matrices are now part of the system of national accounts, as are frameworks that support analysis of environmental issues. Similarly, the system of social statistics addresses economic wellbeing and produces measures of economic activity, such as unemployment rates and household expenditure.


The system of social statistics has evolved in keeping with changing perceptions about the scope and dynamics of human wellbeing. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) originally proposed that wellbeing could be effectively measured by identifying some key aspects of life that are fundamental to individual wellbeing, such as good health, sufficient income, rewarding work, and so on. The system of social statistics presented here focuses on eight such areas as a central organising principle. The key social and statistical issues for each of these areas of concern comprise the remaining chapters of this book (e.g. health, family and community, education and training, work, economic resources, housing, crime and justice, and culture and leisure).

Social statistics are produced by taking counts of units (for example, individuals, family units, dwellings) with particular characteristics (e.g. education or income or physical characteristics). These counts are aggregated to provide information from which inferences can be made about all similar units, individuals, families, or the population as a whole. Such measures can be selected, constructed and combined in a wide range of ways in order to produce complex indicators of the wellbeing status of groups in society, and of society itself. These can be compared as they change over time to show, at a broad level, whether conditions of living are getting better or worse. Each area of concern has a platform of these social indicators that provides a base for analysing wellbeing in that area. For example, in the area of health, the ABS uses indicators such as the mortality rate to describe the population's wellbeing. In the area of work, indicators such as the unemployment rate perform the same function.

An important criterion for selecting appropriate social indicators is their ability to provide governments with feedback on specific social policy, and to inform current social issues. For this reason, the major social issues governments and communities wish to understand provide a useful focus for the development of statistical frameworks, collections and analysis within each area of concern. Key social issues for each area are outlined in this book.

Statistics indicating levels of wellbeing and changes in wellbeing over time inevitably lead to questions about why things get worse, and how things can get better. It is clear that some social environments assist people to become more socially capable than others, and that some groups face greater disadvantage than others (e.g. Indigenous people, people with a low income or with a disability). In order to support analysis of advantage and disadvantage among people in society, the ABS also identifies population groups of particular interest in its system of social statistics.

Recently it has been acknowledged that beyond the fundamental needs of individuals addressed by the areas of concern framework, the health of the society itself, as an integrated whole, can be an important factor in understanding why conditions of life change and how they can be improved. The perception that a community itself can be subject to low or high levels of wellbeing, e.g. to greater or lesser degrees of cohesion or vitality, gives rise to new questions about how wellbeing can be measured. Positive community functioning relies on the underlying beliefs people hold about obligation, reciprocity and philanthropy, on the prevalence in the community of attitudes such as trust, in other people and in community infrastructures, and on the extent to which individuals and groups (both profit and non-profit) participate in the community. Such factors can be difficult to measure but are important precursors to wellbeing at a societal level. Also important are the type, quality and quantity of interactions that take place between community members, both as individuals and as groups. A framework that maps the context for such interactions is used throughout this book. This framework identifies units of measurement such as transactions, social exchanges and social contracts, that can form the basis of data that indicates the wellbeing of communities.

The several interconnected and evolving themes that are central to the ABS system of social statistics are represented in the diagram below.

Image - ABS system of social statistics

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