Statistics show there's no reason to whinge

HERE'S a factual story you won't believe: people working for the man last year suffered barely any rise in inflation.

HERE'S a factual story you won't believe: people working for the man last year suffered barely any rise in inflation. The politicians keep saying working families are doing it tough, that we're all suffering terrible cost-of-living pressures, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) crunched the numbers and found employees overall saw the average cost of the things they buy rise by just 1.1 per cent.

While the consumer price index showed a rise of 2.2 per cent in 2012, a separate living cost index for employees rose by only half that. Yes, utilities shot up, but interest rates fell - and interest rates are not included in the CPI.

The ABS publishes separate living-cost indices for five household types: employee, age pensioner, self-funded retiree, pensioner and beneficiary and other government transfer recipient. As the ABS explains it, the living-cost indices have been designed to answer the question: By how much would after-tax incomes need to change to allow households to purchase the same quantity of consumer goods and services that they purchased in the base period?

The different household types spend money differently. Most age pensioners are not paying off a mortgage or buying nappies; and walking frames and aged-care costs are not high on the agenda for the average employee.

The consumption patterns can throw up marked differences. While the living-cost index for age pensioners did not move at all in the December quarter, it was up by 2.4 per cent over the year, outpacing the CPI. Self-funded retirees - presumably a similar age bracket - saw their living-cost index jump by 0.3 per cent last quarter but it is only up 1.9 per cent over the year.

Turns out those good-time-Charlies of the self-funded set have a relatively higher proportion of expenditure than the general population on recreation and culture, which was more expensive in the December quarter.

Age pensioners are not as likely to be off to the opera, but a higher proportion of their expenditure goes on health and food and non-alcoholic beverages, which fell in the latest quarter.

Which households are doing better or worse than the CPI varies from quarter to quarter, year to year, depending on what are the main influences on the CPI movements. When alcohol and tobacco prices are jumping, it hits non-age welfare recipients harder as a higher proportion of their expenditure goes on booze and smokes.

Age pensioners need not worry about the impact of topping the living-cost indices chart last year though - age and several other (but not all) government benefits are indexed to the higher of the consumer price index, the age pensioner living-cost index and male total average weekly earnings (MTAWE). MTAWE outpaces the other two measures and by a considerable margin, up by 3.9 per cent over the past financial year, while the CPI advanced by just 1.9 per cent in that period, so that the average pensioner's standard of living has been steadily increasing, just as it has been for most Australians - not that you will find many who will say so.

Tucked away in federal budget papers is a chart estimating the real disposable income changes over the past five years for various household types by a rough measure of below-average, average and above-average income. It averages about an 8 per cent gain, with the standout winners being single pensioners, up 22.6 per cent.

But you probably won't believe the ABS about any of this sort of stuff. The politicians after your vote and the populist media out to scare you are much more convincing. Besides, it is human nature to remember the jump in the last electricity bill but forget the last pension increase. It is also human nature to relish a good whinge, particularly when your nation is the world champion in that sport - we're still the mob that thought Olympic silver medals were not good enough.

The election will be fought over plenty of issues, but convincing voters they are suffering a cost-of-living crisis is sure to get an outing, despite the carbon tax turning out to be a damp squib. It worked well enough for Kevin Rudd in 2007 when he bored into people that "working families are doing it tough". Working families, in fact, had never had it so good. With unemployment at 4.4 per cent, just about anyone employable who really wanted a job could have one - some people who didn't want one were employed as well. Wages were surging as part of an economy unsustainably bubbling on the commodities price windfall, surging debt and asset prices.

This time round, there are an extra couple of hundred thousand Australians out of work with the unemployment rate at 5.4 per cent, but there also are more than 1 million extra Australians in work. Never mind, perceptions are so much more important than reality.

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