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Rising household stress cannot be ignored

ALL TALK: Former Liberal leader John Hewson says while governments talk about rising living costs, they are doing little about it.
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While our governments are very fond of telling us “how well we are doing” – still strong economic growth after some 27 years without a recession, a low headline unemployment rateand low inflation – households are increasingly struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of living, day-to-day, many hand-to-mouth.

Indeed, the data also reveals that, overall, households have been running down their savings, and increasing debt, to survive. We have the highest level of household debt (mostly mortgages and credit cards) in the world, at about 120 per centof our GDPand approaching nearly 200 per centof household disposable income, yet incomes have been essentially flat for nearly 10 years since the global financial crisis.

This week, two significant surveys provided further evidence. The Household Income and Labour Dynamics survey, which has provided an annual picturefor some 17 years, revealed that Sydney is the country’s most-expensive housing market. There, 13 per centof residents are already experiencing housing stress, that is, spending more than 30 per centof household income on rent and mortgage payments. The survey also revealed the average amount of money families spend on childcare every week more than doubled from $71 in 2002-03 to $154 in 2015-16; average household energy costs rose from $1727 a year in 2006-08 to $2118 in 2015-16,while the median household disposable income had only risen from $79,160 in 2009, to $79,244 in 2016.

The second survey was Triple J’s What’s Up in Your World surveywhich revealed that low wages and an unstable workforce have “destroyed” the chance of most young people owning a house. Some 42 per centof young people are still living at home with their parents and working full-time or part-time, but most of them have less than $5000 in the bank. And 28 per centof young people have more than $5000 in debt – and that doesn’t include their HECS.

Jim Stanford, from the Centre for Future Work said: “Saving to buy a house has become a ridiculous dream for most of these young people.” With the cost of living astronomical, “they simply do not have a realistic prospect of getting a stable job that’ll allow them to pay off that debt and start saving”.

A sobering snapshot, indeed.Especially for a generation like mine, who believed that we would bequeath to our children a better and more secure lifestyle than we enjoyed.

There are, of course, many reasons why we, as a nation, have ended up in this most challenging situation, but two key ones are bad governmentand irresponsible banking.

Although our governments talk about the rapidly rising “costs of living”, they are doing very little, directly, about it. We have no effective housing affordability policy, no energy policy and “improvements”in things like childcare, medical insurance, schools and hospitals etc.are often just piecemeal, political and sporadic.

The best that both major parties have offered to date has not been “solutions” to these challenges, but limited tax “relief” spread over years – $10 per week, as they say, just a hamburger and a milkshake!

The Banking Royal Commission has also highlighted the lax lending practices,and other abuses,by our major banks whereby many loans have been extended to people who can’t afford them, with the result that house prices and rents have rocketed. If the banksincrease mortgage and other interest rates as their cost of funds increases globally – or the Reserve Bank moves to begin to put up official interest rates – many, many more households will be pushed into mortgage stress. This is already being compounded as house prices have begun to fall, reducing their effective equity in the home.

Given the enormous risks and uncertainties in the global economy, compounded by increasing geo-political tensions, the probability of another GFC is increasing almost daily. The “shake out” in credit/debt, stock and bond marketscould dramatically worsen the position of Australian households, at a time when they are already particularly struggling and exposed.

It is now urgent that our politicians are driven to give up their short-term, self-absorbed, game of scoring points on each other, and shifting blame, to govern in our national interest.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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