In Australia the ‘gold standard’ data set for studying individuals and households is the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, more commonly known as the HILDA Survey.
Data are the life blood of economists, social researchers and anyone else interested in understanding what is happening in society and HILDA’s insights are profound.
"A key advantage of the survey data is it allows the persistence of household poverty to be measured.”
The same households and individuals are interviewed each year, allowing researchers to study how peoples’ lives change over time.
This means important issues such as the persistence of poverty or housing stress can be addressed as most other data sets only provide a snapshot in time rather than such a dynamic picture.
Funded by the Australian Government, the survey has questioned more than 17,000 Australians since 2001, with the most recent data provided for 2016.
Since the survey began, the most common household type has been a couple with dependent children.
The relative size of this group has remained remarkably steady, making up 41.5 per cent of all households in 2016 compared with 41.7 per cent in 2001.
One big shift in family life has been the rise in paid child care, most notably for couple parents.
Paid child care usage has grown from 42.3 per cent in 2001 to 49.1 per cent in 2016.
Over the same period the use of paid child care by single-parents has grown from 48.7 per cent to 50.4 per cent.
These increases, in large, reflect the rising participation of women in the labour market.
The survey also looks at the cost of child care.
Between 2004-05 and 2015-16, the total amount spent on child care grew by about 80 per cent per child for couple parents and by more than 100 per cent per child for single-parent families.
These increases largely reflect increased hours of paid care per child but the cost per hour has also been rising, which is not surprising given rising wages.
Of course, wages for the parents have also risen but not enough to offset rising child care costs.
As more children join the family, it’s not a surprise that the work-force participation of the parent or parents changes too.
For example, when a family grows from one child to three or more, the percentage of mothers not working rises from 32.4 per cent to 37.5 per cent.
The percentage of mothers working part-time also increases by almost 5 per cent to 34.5 per cent.
Single mothers are more likely to be employed full-time than mothers in couple families when there are one or two children, but somewhat less likely when there are three more.
Although the majority of single fathers are employed full-time, they are far more likely to be employed part-time than partnered fathers.
An important social and policy issue for Australia is household poverty.
Encouragingly, the HILDA Survey reveals relative income poverty declined between 2001 and 2016.
In 2001, 12.6 per cent of households were below 50 per cent of median income; this dropped to 9.4 per cent of households in 2016.
A key advantage of the survey data is they allow the persistence of household poverty to be measured.
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If the survey is divided into two overlapping 10 year periods (2001-2010 and 2007-2016) then 5 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women were in poverty for at least five of the 10 years, though persistence was lower in the second period than in the first
This decline in persistence is consistent with the drop in income poverty over the two periods.
Poverty among the elderly also tended to be more persistent and is more common for elderly women than men.
The HILDA Survey also looks at financial stress.
These measures show the impact of the global financial crisis, with most indicators of financial stress rising from 2008 until 2011 when they began to decline.
Housing stress is also captured in the survey.
By using the 30-40 rule, 9.6 per cent of households were in stress in 2016.
This is down from a high of 11.2 per cent in 2012.
Single-parent families face the most housing stress which tends to be quite persistent over time.
In 2013-16 almost half of respondents in housing stress during one year experienced stress in the subsequent year.
Persistence of housing stress is highest for the elderly, with the figure for persistence around 70 per cent for all types of elderly households in the 2013-16 period.
Renters are especially exposed to financial and housing stress.
What’s more, the percentage of Australians who are living in rental accommodation is growing – up from 28 per cent in 2001 to 31.2 per cent in 2016.
This increase is most common for respondents aged between 25 and 44 years’ old, while 15 to 24 year olds are slightly less likely to be renting.
Renters are more likely to move house than other Australians, with almost half moving over a three-year period compared with just less than 17 per cent of non-renters.
Renting long-term is also becoming more persistent across all age groups.
From 2013-16, only 10 per cent of renters moved into home ownership in any given year.
The HILDA Survey also highlights a possible need to improve the financial literacy of women in particular, with males answering more questions correctly.
The authors of this section of the report observed women were more likely to answer ‘don’t know’ than men.
They also noted the “proportions providing incorrect answers were similar for males and females”.
So perhaps the better result for men comes down to a higher willingness to guess rather than superior knowledge.
There were also differences in levels of financial literacy across demographics such as age and whether or not the respondent was a native English speaker.
Such data have obvious value for designing policies to increase financial literacy.
Guest Author: David Plank Head of Australian Economics ANZ Bank
Source: ANZ Blue Notes