Salvation Army ‘state of the nation’

The Salvation Army has put out their 10th annual ‘state of the nation’ report. They have titled it “Off the Track.


Executive Summary

The title of the 2017 State of the Nation report is, in part, inspired by the famous Robert Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’. The final verse of this poem reads:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
and I— I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This poem describes the choice of which route or track to take, and acknowledges that this single choice made all the difference to what happened subsequently.

And so it is with our national life—the policy route chosen by a Government can make all the difference to what happens subsequently in our collective and individual fortunes.

The National-led Governments of the past eight years have made it very clear that their priority was economic growth and the increase in job numbers and the expansion of incomes that may attend this growth. And this has occurred —especially over the past five years. Such success should be acknowledged both as social progress in its own right and for the opportunities it offers for other sorts of social progress.

However, it is the lack of these other sorts of social progress that most concerns The Salvation Army and, no doubt, many other New Zealanders. This concern has given rise to the focus of this report. We ask: Are we still on the path or track to a shared prosperity as a national community, or have we started to wander off this track?

Three stark conclusions emerge for us from the data and analysis offered in this report:

  1. We have failed to put a dent in rates of child poverty over the past decade.
  2. Our efforts to reduce the prison population have failed and we are planning to expand the already record high prison population by a further 18%.
  3. Housing investment and speculation have been allowed to distort the economy, make us still more indebted, and create levels of homelessness unseen in more than a generation.

We believe the evidence to support these three claims is clear and unequivocal, and some of this evidence is offered in this report.

No matter how we choose to measure child poverty, the emerging conclusion is that nothing much has changed in child poverty rates despite continued economic growth and political rhetoric. A commonly used child poverty measure suggests that 20% of New Zealand’s children (or 212,000 children) live in relative income poverty, while perhaps 8% (or about 85,000 children) face severe material hardship. These numbers are little changed from a decade ago.

salvationarmy-the-children

While a reliable way of measuring crime rates continues to elude us, it does appear that levels of offending are falling. For example, the number of adults convicted of an offence fell from 90,700 in 2010/11 to 64,600 in 2015/16. Despite this fall, New Zealand’s prison population has grown from 8,400 at the end of 2011 to almost 10,000 by the end of 2016. Furthermore, in October 2016, Government announced a $1 billion plan to expand prisons by a further 1,800 beds.

salvationarmy-crime-and-punishment

Auckland’s housing bubble continued to grow during 2016, with the median house price jumping 12% to almost $854,000. Median house prices New Zealandwide grew 12% during 2016 as well, indicating that Auckland’s housing pressures are spreading elsewhere. Alongside these price increases, rents have also increased—growing by around 25% over the past five years, while average wages have risen by half this amount. There is considerable regional variation in these rent increases, with Auckland rent increases slowing recently, while rents in the Waikato have suddenly jumped.

As could perhaps be expected, this rapid increase in house prices has been supported by growing household indebtedness. By September 2016, household debt amounted to 96% of GDP and 160% of disposable household income—both are record highs.

The Government’s strategy has been to drive economic growth, and through this expand job opportunities and incomes. Over the past five years, it has delivered on this strategy—with jobs growing by more than 12% to over 2.5 million and average weekly incomes of employees growing 9% to $987 per week at the end of 2016.

But more jobs and better incomes for those with jobs are not the only contributor to social progress. It is difficult seeing social progress if homeownership rates continue to fall and homelessness becomes more prevalent. A growing prison population is the antipathy of social progress. It is difficult seeing social progress in persistent rates of child poverty—even as the economy grows robustly.

As Robert Frost deduced, the choices made in the past make all the difference to the life we end up living. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals. It appears to The Salvation Army that, either by neglect or silence, we have made political and social choices that have paid scant regard to the interests and future of thousands of New Zealanders —especially our young. This neglect or silence needs to be recognised and addressed if we are to get back on track.

Alan Johnson | Social Policy Analyst Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit

> Download the 2017 Off the Track Report (PDF, 2.37MB)

> Download the 2017 Off the Track Report Summary (PDF, 40.5KB)