I only lasted about half an hour with last night’s debate, but early on Kevin Rudd repeated his claim that people are feeling worse off due to rising costs, and the worm climbed to the top of the screen as he did so.
Is this a case of the objective statistics not capturing the subjective experience of the Australian electorate? There is nothing unusual about public perceptions being inconsistent with the facts. But this seems to be a case in which public perceptions are not matching what the same public tells pollsters when asked questions about their finances and standard of living.
For example, the Roy Morgan consumer confidence survey asks its respondents:
Would you say you and your family are better-off financially or worse off than you were at this time last year?
In the most recent survey, 40% said that they were better off and 21% said that they were worse off. The numbers have bounced around a little over the year (it’s a monthly survey), with an average of 36% saying they are better off and 25% worse off. The comparable numbers last year were 33% and 28.5%. This suggests that, compared to last year, more people perceive an improvement over the preceding 12 months and fewer perceive a decrease.
And nor do they seem to think that price increases are going to keep whacking them, with an average of 42% saying that they expect to be financially better off in twelve months time, and 12% expecting to be worse off.
Over a longer time period, a Galaxy poll reported in Saturday’s Herald Sun asked:
Overall, would you say that you are now better off, or worse off than you were three years ago?
50% said that they were better off, while 29% said they were worse off. A large 21% were ‘uncomitted’. If memories are accurate (a big if), a longer stretch of time increases the numbers of both the better off and the worse off.
Do you believe your standard of living in the next six months will improve, stay the same or get worse?
There are important differences between Newspoll and Morgan. ‘Standard of living’ is not simply a question of recent finances; assets as well as income contribute to perceptions, as do services received but not paid for by the household. It’s not clear that Morgan gives an express ‘stay the same’ option, which almost always attract a strong response (for example, the Australian Election Survey asks a similar question to Morgan but has an ‘about the same’ option, which gets the highest response). However, Morgan’s combined better and worse total well under 100. Further, Newspoll combines its survey with political questions, which probably triggers partisan answers.
The most recent Newspoll finding, from July this year, was that 21% thought that their standard of living would improve, 61% thought that it would stay the same, and 16% thought that it would get worse. Apart from the June 2003 to June 2005 period, only once since Newspoll starting asking this question in 1985 has pessimism been so low.
Though depending on the question and the poll 16% to 29% of the population perceive some deterioration in their circumstances, there is no evidence here that even on a subjective basis unusually large numbers of people are ‘doing it tough’. To the contrary, the direction of subjective opinion is broadly consistent with the direction of objective indicators. Though as always through a mix of bad luck and choice – many people choose lower incomes through lifestyle transitions – some people are worse off than before, prosperity means that more are headed up than headed down.
Whatever Kevin Rudd says, whatever the worm says, these are good times. The typical family may want more, but they are not worse off than before.