14 Dec from COVID to housing and happiness, it was a tale of two countries
As school and university students ponder their end-of-year results, it’s only fair we cast a critical eye over the country, too. Using international and domestic indices and figures, it’s possible to get an idea of how well – or poorly – New Zealand has done in 2021.
It’s not definitive or exhaustive, of course, but it might help provide a bit of perspective after what has been, most people will surely agree, a trying and tiring year of social, political and economic self-analysis.
The global good news
When it came to being corruption-free, New Zealand was equal top of the class (with Denmark), according to Transparency International. The Index for Economic Freedom (which covers everything from property rights to financial freedom) puts NZ second (behind Singapore but up from third last year).
The Global Peace Index ranked NZ third for safety and security, domestic and international conflict, and degree of militarisation (down one place). Watchdog Freedom House scored NZ 99 out of 100 – three Scandinavian countries scored a perfect 100.
The Global Gender Gap Report recorded a rise from sixth to the fourth most gender-equal country. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index has NZ at seventh-best in the world. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranked NZ eighth.
NZ was the ninth-most-cheerful country, according to the World Happiness Report, behind eight European and Scandinavian nations, and we were equal sixth (down from second) for internet affordability, availability, readiness and relevance, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Domestically, New Zealand recorded better-than-expected results on four fronts:
by mid-year, median weekly earnings from wages and salaries had increased by NZ$32 (3%) to $1,093 compared to the previous year
while still comparatively (and unacceptably) high, suicides decreased in the year to July 2021, down to 607 from 628 the year before
the most up-to-date police reports suggested crimes against people and property had declined by 6.6% over the whole of 2020.
On the other hand, those crime statistics still represent a total of 265,162 “victimisations” (73% against property, 27% against people), still too high.
Similarly, improvements to wages and salaries are being offset by rising inflation, now at an annual rate of 4.9%.
But despite increased social tensions due to pandemic restrictions and mandates, the country’s official terrorism threat level remained “medium” in 2021. And incarceration rates seem to be dropping, with a prisoner population of 8,034 (as of September 2021), a drop of more than 1,400 on the year before.
The not-so-good news
For life expectancy, education and income, NZ comes in 14th according to the latest Human Development Index. We fell a spot to 20th in the 2021 Global Competitiveness Report, but stayed at 26th place on the Global Innovation Index.
According to the latest (2020) Yale Environmental Performance Index, which measures environmental health and ecosystem vitality, NZ ranks 19th – which is at least higher than our ratings on climate change.
The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that measures 39 countries plus the EU, gave NZ an overall (pre-COP 26) assessment of “highly insufficient”. The Climate Change Performance Index pegged us at 35th place (down seven). Maybe New Zealand’s COP 26 pledges will reverse this poor showing.
But these rankings have been highly volatile, and we may find our accelerated vaccination rate, combined with still-stringent border restrictions as the Omicron variant spreads, propel us back up the charts.
Must do better
Undeniably, the most negative trends involved housing and poverty. In the year to June, average house price growth (already high by international standards) was clocked at 25.9%. Good for some, maybe many, but terrible for the young and others locked out of the housing market by extreme prices.
An estimated 102,000 people are now living in severe housing deprivation, including 3,624 without shelter, 7,929 in temporary accommodation, 31,171 in severely crowded dwellings and 60,000 in sub-standard housing (lacking one of six basic amenities such as tap water or a toilet).
New Zealand’s child poverty rate remains above the OECD average. While the numbers have decreased according to the various measures used, this still meant 18.4% of all children – around 210,500, or one in five – were living in households with less than 50% of the median disposable income.
Slight improvements in the numbers living with material hardship were also recorded. But this may well have reversed due to the impact of the pandemic, with estimates of up to 18,000 more children ending up in poverty in the 12 months to March 2021.
At the other end of the scale, someone in the wealthiest 1% of adults (about 40,000 citizens) now has a net worth 68 times that of the typical (median) New Zealander. Wealth inequality remains stubbornly high.
In short, while New Zealand can claim some bragging rights in important areas, there is less to celebrate when it comes to the lives and fortunes of many of its citizens. As ever, the final verdict has to be: room for improvement.