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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Areas of concern

When asked what contributes most to their wellbeing people tend to immediately think of good health and sufficient income. Many may add a job they enjoy, harmonious personal relationships, and leisure activities. Historically, the development of social statistics frameworks began with this intuitive approach of identifying fundamental human needs.

In the early 1970s, the OECD proposed that wellbeing could be measured by defining goal areas, or areas of concern, which it defined as denoting 'identifiable and definable aspirations or concerns of fundamental and direct importance to human wellbeing'.2 The OECD selected these areas, 'based on their direct and fundamental relationship to wellbeing'. Recognising this work, the ABS selected a number of aspects of life that contribute to individual wellbeing on which to base its system of social statistics. At the time, these aspects were considered core in relation to the many dimensions of human existence. Each now corresponds with a generalised area of concern within the system of social statistics. The term 'area of concern' is apt, as it suggests the overall concern a society has with the wellbeing of its citizens.

Aspects of life contributing to wellbeing
Areas of concern

Support and nurture through family and community
Family and community

Freedom from disability

Realisation of personal potential through education
Education and training

Satysfying and rewarding work both economic & non-economic

Command over economic resources, enabling consumption
Economic resources

Shelter, security and privacy, through housing

Personal Safety and protection from crime
Crime and justice

Time for and access to cultural and leisure activities
Culture and leisure

As indicated above, this list is a selected subset of a larger list of important aspects of life that might be concerned with emotions (e.g. love and self worth), spiritual commitment, or other factors of life. Human rights, which can sometimes be taken for granted but which are crucial to personal wellbeing, might also be included (e.g. freedom of speech, freedom of religion, access to an independent court and justice system). Attitudes that foster community cooperation and cohesion, such as trust and obligation are becoming more widely recognised as contributing significantly to wellbeing. Many of these factors of life, however, are embraced indirectly by areas such as family and community, culture and leisure, or crime and justice. Others, such as self worth, are affected by factors such as satisfying work and good health, and can be addressed in relation to each of the areas listed above. Other concerns associated with wellbeing also apply across all areas, e.g. concerns relating to access to services.

An area that supports the production of social statistics and is relevant to all the eight areas listed above, is that of population. This area is concerned with demographic measurement and trends. It supplies frameworks and methodological support for analysis across all social statistics. Issues such as population ageing and growth and the implications of these for society and the natural environment are addressed within this area.

It would be inappropriate to consider these areas of concern in isolation from one another. All aspects of life are connected to a greater or lesser extent. An individual's working life affects their access to economic resources and to leisure time, and may be closely linked to their education. An individual's health affects, and is affected by, all other aspects of their life, such as their family and community environments. Despite this interrelation, however, the groupings discussed in this book function well as a broad organising principle for the multifaceted nature of social statistics.


Within some areas of concern, it can be useful to establish particular standards or benchmarks against which levels of wellbeing can be compared (e.g. previous or later levels of wellbeing, or levels experienced in other countries or in different States, can be compared to these benchmarks). For instance, the income of a particular population group can be measured against the average income of the population as a whole, and this relationship compared over time. Such comparisons can show whether the number of people in that group whose income is below a certain level is increasing or decreasing. Choosing the appropriate level at which to set wellbeing benchmarks (e.g. poverty lines) in order to make such comparisons can be difficult. While some conditions are clear and unambiguous (e.g. a person suffering from terminal cancer does not have good health), generally, there is no absolute line that universally differentiates a well person from a sick person, a person with a reasonable standard of living from one living in poverty, a person who is well educated from one who is poorly educated, etc.

There are, nevertheless, a range of values held and expressed in society which enable judgements to be made about where to set levels that can be used as statistical benchmarks. These, so called normative values, are states that are generally considered normal, standard or acceptable. To continue with the above income example, if a poverty line is drawn based on income, it needs to reflect what is normal and acceptable. It can be based on what goods or opportunities should be within the means of all households, or calculated by a formula, e.g. the proportion of households with income less than half the median household income could be said to be in poverty. When measuring literacy, a benchmark that pinpoints a specific level of skill gives meaning to measures above and below that level.

Normative values may change over time and vary from country to country. For example, what is considered unacceptable in Australia (e.g. below the norm), might be considered acceptable elsewhere, and vice versa. What was acceptable in Australia forty years ago may be unacceptable now. However, in a particular country at a point in time, it is possible to develop agreed levels of achievement for a particular factor that can be measured and compared, both between groups in the community and over time. Another way of measuring the relativity of a social phenomenon is to observe the movement of a variable as it either grows or diminishes over time (e.g. divorce). This is the basis on which social indicators are predicated.

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