Australian incomes more equal than a decade ago, but average household debts have doubled

Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 10 May 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 10 May 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Australia is more equal than it was a decade ago, but one in six Australians still can't afford a night out once a fortnight and one in 10 can only afford second-hand clothes.

These are the findings of the Australian Bureau of Statistics household income and expenditure survey of 17,000 homes, released on Wednesday, which shows that between 2004 and 2008, average weekly household income grew by $213.

Since then it has only grown by $27 to $1009.

It is not that the poor are getting richer or the rich getting poorer; the share of income is staying about the same.

The net worth of the average Sydney household is now $1.3 million, in Melbourne it's just over $950,000.

But stubbornly low income growth has left a country in which average household debt has doubled and the top 20 per cent of households control more than 60 per cent of all wealth, while the lowest 20 per cent control less than 1 per cent.

In the past year, households in the top 20 per cent were worth $2.9 million, while the lowest quintile were worth $36,500.

Incomes may be going nowhere fast, but they are now more equal than they were in 2008, based on the only standardised international metric, the Gini co-efficient.

The Gini measures the income or wealth distribution of a nation's residents against income taxes and welfare contributions, between 0, where everybody is equal, and 1, where one person earns all the country's income.

In the lead-up to the global financial crisis, income inequality increased from 0.306 in 2003 to 0.336 in 2008. It now sits at 0.323 out of 1.

After the GFC, the then-Labor government marginally increased the pension and introduced the Medicare levy, potentially influencing the welfare contribution of the inequality scale.

Still, the figures will be seized on by Treasurer Scott Morrison, who has spent the past year proclaiming inequality is at its lowest level since 2008, and will hamper Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's attempts to put inequality at the centre of Labor's agenda.

Labor, which has long claimed Australia is the most unequal it has been in 75 years, will point to the fact that, although income distribution may be marginally more equal, the asset measurement of wealth inequality has declined - mainly due to rising house prices and superannuation balances.

Wealth inequality is the same now as it was in 2013, but higher than when it was first comprehensively measured in 2003 at 0.573.

The figures also show that young families are doing it tough.

Anaverage family with the youngest child aged under five is spending more than a quarterof its combinedincome on rent or a mortgage across Australia.

But it gets easier as you get older: Australians are better off banking on their age, rather than their bosses, for a pay rise.

According to the ABS, Australians are now worth $35,000 between the ages of 15-24, $411,000 by 35-44, and peak at $898,000 by 55.

It's downhill from there though. By the time their 75th birthday rolls around, the average Australian's median net worth sinks to $642,000.

Among the states, Sydney households had the highest net worth of any capital city with an average net worth of $1.3 million - $574,500 higher than the rest of NSW. Melbourne was next highest, with an average net worth of $950,000 $311,100 higher than the rest of Victoria.

Debt is climbing though, with up to a third of all Australian households now in debt up to three times their level of income, mostly due to to housing costs, up from 20 per cent 13 years ago.

The household expenditure survey, taken every six years, also measures where and how Australians are spending their money.

We are spending up to 15 per cent less on cigarettes, alcohol and fashion, but those savings are going towards housing ourselves, putting fuel in our cars and sending power to our homes.

Australians who earn less than 1 per cent of the country's wealth are spending just as much per week as the top 20 per cent of income earners on cigarettes, and almost as much on fuel and power, but a fifth of the proportion of their incomeon education.

Overall, education spending has tripled as a proportion of the average Australians expenditure since the 1980s.

"The survey also shows that since 1984, the pattern of household spending has changed considerably," said the bureau's chief economist, Bruce Hockman.

"Back in 1984, the largest contributors to household spending were food [20 per cent], then transport [16 per cent] and housing [13 per cent]. Jump forward to 2015-16, and housing is now the largest contributor [20 per cent], followed by food [17 per cent)], and transport costs [15 per cent].

The survey also tells us that in the past 12 months, 2.6 per cent of Victorian and NSW residents went without meals or being able to heat their homes, 9 per cent could not pay a power bill on time and more than 20 per cent could not afford a holiday for at least one week a year.

But the proportion of households relying on the pension as their main source of income has fallen to the second-lowest level recorded since the survey began in 1994, with more than half of all Australians now earning less than 1 per cent of their income from government pensions.

Among the major cities, Sydneysiders are spending a lot more than Melburnians on rent - $82 a week more on average, but Victorians are coughing up more on fuel and power and an extra $3 a week on alcohol and tobacco.

Likewise, Sydney residents like to decorate, with the highest level of spending on household furnishings - $77 per week - compared with Perth and Melbourne, where residents spend between $55-$59 per week.

With Peter Martin

This story Australian incomes more equal than a decade ago, but average household debts have doubled first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.