4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Data sources

Many of the social surveys conducted by the ABS provide measures of income (usually before tax cash income) and principal sources of income, as indicators of a person's or household's economic wellbeing. This information is collected to help assess the relationships between economic wellbeing and outcomes in other aspects of people's lives on which those surveys are focussed. Thus, ABS surveys of family functioning, health, time use, housing, and those concerned with groups of social concern such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, crime victims, older people and people with disabilities, have all provided information about people's incomes. However, the ABS has also regularly conducted more highly focussed surveys, generally known as income distribution surveys and household expenditure surveys, that serve to provide detailed data on the type and value of economic resources acquired and consumed by people. These surveys, described further below, provide the foundation for more detailed studies of the distribution of economic wellbeing among different socioeconomic groups.


This survey, conducted as a continuous monthly survey since 1994 and superceding periodic income distribution surveys conducted between 1968 and 1990, collects information on sources of income, amounts received and selected housing costs along with information about the characteristics of individuals and their households. Income is collected on both a current (recent payment period) and financial year basis. The principal objective of the survey is to facilitate the analysis and monitoring of the social and economic welfare of Australian residents in private dwellings. The main users are government and other social and economic analysts variously involved in the development, implementation and evaluation of social and economic policies. The major uses for the income data are poverty studies, planning income support, taxation policy and comparing the wellbeing of groups of people with particular characteristics. The frequency of the survey is currently under review, with a view to reducing its frequency to either biennieal or triennial.


Conducted periodically, usually at intervals of 5-6 years, since the mid 1970s these national surveys provide detailed information about the expenditure of households on goods and services. Average weekly expenditure on over 600 goods and services can be obtained. At the same time the surveys provide information about household income, household size and composition and various other household characteristics useful for the analysis of expenditure patterns. Estimates are available for Australia, the States and Territories, and for broad geographical areas (State, capital city, other urban and rural). The general objectives for conducting these surveys have been to: identify the net levels and patterns of expenditure of households on a comprehensive range of goods and services purchased for private use; determine how these levels and patterns vary according to income levels and other characteristics of households, such as size and composition, location and principal sources of cash income; and, help update the weighting pattern of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to ensure it adequately reflects the spending habits of the Australian population. The CPI (referred to below) is an indicator of the rate of change in prices paid by consumers for the goods and services they buy.

As designed the surveys provide data enabling detailed analysis of the economic wellbeing of the population and levels of economic inequality, the effectiveness of the social support system and the mechanisms by which the system of government taxes and benefits redistributes income between different types of households.


Produced after the conduct of each Household Expenditure Survey (HES) since 1988/89, are arrays of published data that describe the distribution of income among households using various income concepts.3 The various income concepts (including gross, disposable and final income) effectively show how government taxes and benefits (both direct and indirect) affect the economic wellbeing of households of different types. The measures are largely built on the basis of information collected in the HES and ABS Government Finance Statistics but also draw on data from a range of other official sources. Together with the aggregate measures of income separate estimates are also published for the various components of income. These include, for example, estimates of the receipt of income-in-kind from government expenditures on various health, education, and housing services provided by government and estimates of indirect taxes paid as a result of household expenditures.


Another important source of information on the distribution of economic wellbeing among individuals, families and households in Australia is the Census of Population and Housing, conducted at five yearly intervals since 1966. The census collects data about the gross income received by individuals aged 15 years and over, so the data for individuals can be aggregated to give measures of family and household income as well. It does not collect information according to source(s) of income precluding the possibility of identifying a person's or household's principal sources of income. However, because of its complete coverage of the population it offers much greater flexibility than surveys in assessing the economic wellbeing of small groups that may be of special interest (e.g. one-parent families, caravan park dwellers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and recent immigrants to Australia).


Conducted annually since 1998 this survey provides a primary source of information on the distribution of earnings. It incorporates data that was previously collected in three separate surveys, of which the survey of Weekly Earnings of Employees (Distribution), conducted annually since 1975, was the one that provided data on earnings. The survey provides information on the weekly earnings and employment benefits of persons aged 15 years and over in their main job if they were employees (wage and salary earners). Although similar data concerning earnings is available from surveys of employers, also conducted by the ABS, an advantage of this survey is that it provides information about the characteristics of wage and salary earners such as their age, sex and birthplace, that are not available from the other sources.


The quarterly survey of Average Weekly Earnings (AWE), based on samples of businesses since 1981, measures the average weekly earnings of employed wage and salary earners (excluding those employed in private agriculture) in Australia. It collects employment and earnings data from a sample of businesses taken from the ABS register of businesses. Estimates of average weekly ordinary time and total earnings are available for both full-time adult employees and all employees and are classified by sector, state or territory, industry and sex. The AWE series is a major economic indicator and is used by various interest groups including Commonwealth and State government departments, employer associations, and trade unions. Uses of the data include: the adjustment of payments specified in Government legislation, both State and Federal, or in escalation clauses in business contracts; in economic and labour market analysis by both government and private organisations; and in representations in the award and wage case submission process.


This survey, currently being developed under the sponsorship of the Department of Family and Community Services, aims to provide national statistics describing how household income and patterns of engagement in paid work of household members change over time. The survey is a longitudinal one and aims to revisit selected households on a number of occasions, and so provide information that tracks outcomes of households in different circumstances.


The Consumer Price Index (CPI), first compiled in 1960 (with index numbers backcast to 1949), provides a general measure of changes in prices of consumer goods and services purchased by Australian households. The price indexes are produced each quarter. They refer to changes in prices of a constant basket of goods and services representative of consumption expenditure by private households in Australian metropolitan areas. In the 14th series, introduced in respect of the September quarter 2000, the price indexes are produced for eleven major commodity groups, 34 sub-groups and 89 expenditure classes for each of the six State capitals, Canberra and Darwin, and a weighted average of the eight capital cities. The CPI has been an important economic indicator for many years and actions related to movements in it, including wage adjustments, adjustments to pension and superannuation payments and adjustments to business contracts, to name a few, have had direct or indirect effects on all Australians. It now provides a general measure of price inflation for the household sector as a whole and is used by the Reserve Bank of Australia as the official measure of inflation for evaluating monetary policy.


Living Cost Indexes (LCIs) first published in August 2001, are price indexes designed specifically to measure the impact of changes in prices on the out-of-pocket living costs experienced by four categories of Australian households. These analytical indexes have been designed specifically to answer the question: 'By how much would after-tax money incomes need to change to allow households to purchase the same quantity of consumer goods and services as purchased in the base period?' The indexes have been constructed to cover the period from June quarter 1998 up to and including the December quarter 2000 and will be updated annually, around May of each year. Using the principal source of household income to categorise households, the four household types for which these indexes have been constructed are: employee households, age pensioner households, other government transfer recipient households, and self-funded retiree households. These indexes represent the conceptually preferred measures for assessing the impact of changes in prices on the disposable incomes of households. The most notable difference between the LCIs and the CPI are that the former include interest charges but do not include house purchases, while inflation indexes do not include interest charges but do include house purchases.


Since 1996, Centrelink has been the Commonwealth government agency responsible for the administration of payments to individuals and families eligible for government income support payments. It is from this administrative information that, in consultation with the Department of Family and Community Services who publishes much of the data, the agency produces information on the numbers of people receiving different types of payments, the amounts they receive, and information that describes the personal and family characteristics of income support recipients. From these administrative data Centrelink, have developed longitudinal data sets pertaining to samples of recipients which show the ongoing interactions that people have with the social security system.


The Australian Taxation Office organises the collection of income tax from Australians required to pay income tax. Statistical data describing the numbers of taxpayers by levels of taxable income are available from this source. Taxation data is currently being used by the ABS to present an annual series of statistics on numbers of people in Statistical Local Areas who receive wages and salaries. These data are available by age, sex and occupation (broad groups) and include data on levels of wage and salary income received.

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