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Australian Income Distribution

A first glance at the Australian income distribution

  • Income inequality refers to the difference in how income is distributed among individuals in society. Income is defined as household disposable income in a particular year. It consists of earnings, self-employment and capital income and public cash transfers; income taxes and social security contributions paid by households are deducted. The income of the household is attributed to each of its members, with an adjustment to reflect differences in needs for households of different sizes.
  • Income inequality among individuals may be measured by different indicators. One of the most used indicators of inequality is the Gini coefficient, which is based on the comparison of cumulative proportions of the population against cumulative proportions of income they receive, and it ranges between 0 in the case of perfect equality and 1 in the case of perfect inequality.
  • The level of income inequality in Australia is similar to the OECD average, with a Gini coefficient of 0.326 in 2012. Inequality has increased since the 1990s, as in many other OECD countries. The average income of the top 10% of income earners is almost 9 times higher than that of the bottom 10% in, up from a ratio of 8 to 1 in the mid-1990s. Across the OECD, this ratio is 9.6:1, on average. The annual average income in Australia is also considerably higher than the OECD average.
  • The rise in inequality came to a halt just before the global financial crisis, with a drop in the Gini by 1 point. Between 2007 and 2011, the income of the bottom 10% increased by 2% while incomes at the top declined by 1%. This pattern is very different from most OECD countries, where the bottom 10% fared worst during the same period.
  • The OECD defines the poverty line as half the median household income of the total population. A household is considered poor by the OECD if its disposable income is below the poverty line. For a household of four people the poverty line in Australia stands at approximately 48000 Australian dollars a year. Poverty rates, while being slightly above the OECD average, have not increased since 2007. Poverty among the elderly has declined substantially (by 5% for the 66-75 years old) but, at 33.5%, it still remains more than 2.5 times higher than the OECD average.

Why is income inequality important for Australia?

Overall, increased women's employment and a lower pay gap between men and women contributed to countering the increase in household income inequality over the past 15 years.

In Australia, the bulk of increase in market income inequality in the past 15 years is due to the widening of the earnings dispersion. This was due to a large decline in hours worked for low-paid men and a larger increase in hourly wages of highly-paid men. For women, the opposite occurred: high paid women saw a decline in hours worked while there was a large increase in hourly wages for low-paid women.

The share of non-standard workers, comprising self employed, part-timers, casual workers and those on fixed-term contracts, is high at around 44%, compared with the OECD average of one-third. But non-standard workers do not face substantial wage penalties once other demographic and job characteristics are taken into account. In terms of hourly wages, part-time workers have actually higher rates than full-timers with similar characteristics.

Temporary or casual jobs tend to be stepping stones in Australia and increase the chances of acquiring a more stable job. This is not always the case for part time workers, however. They are sometimes discouraged from increasing their working hours, as more than half of their additional earnings will be taxed away, mainly in the form of higher income taxes and lower family benefits.

Poverty rates for households whose main earnings are from non-standard work are among the lowest of the OECD. On the other hand, poverty for jobless households is one of the highest of the OECD.

The percentage of indebted and over-indebted households (based on households with debt to income ratio above 3) at 72% and 18% respectively is high compared to the OECD average (52% and 9% respectively).

Methodology and conceptual issues

There are a number of conceptual issues to take into account when trying to define how rich or poor someone is relative to the rest of the population. To help you better understand our methodology, here are some of the questions we considered when building Compare your income

Where do the data come from?

Most of the data on the actual distribution of income are drawn from the OECD Income Distribution Database. This database is based on national sources (household surveys and administrative records) and on common definitions, classifications and data-treatments. The method of data collection used for the OECD Income Distribution Database aims to maximise international comparability as well as inter-temporal consistency of data. This is achieved by a common set of protocols and statistical conventions (e.g. on income concepts and components) to derive comparable estimates. Due to the increasing importance of income inequality and poverty issues in policy discussion, the database is now annually updated. The OECD is currently working on extending its database to a number of other key partner countries.

How is income defined and why do we consider net income?

The definition of income used here refers mainly to cash income - excluding components such as imputed rents - regularly received over the year. Net income is defined as total market income (i.e. gross earnings, self-employment income, capital income), plus the current transfers received, less the taxes and social security contributions paid. This is the income that people have available to buy goods and services, so it is a better measure of material living standards than pre-tax income or some measure of earnings alone.

Why is income measured at the level of the household?

The welfare of an individual in a household will depend not only upon their own income, but also on that of other household members. By measuring income at the household level, we are implicitly assuming that all individuals within the household are equally well off and therefore occupy the same position in the income distribution. In practice that might not be true, but it is the least arbitrary assumption that we can make based on the available data.

The OECD Income Distribution Database provides information on the equivalised disposable (i.e. net) income. 'Equivalising' means adjusting a household's income for its size, so that we can look at the income of all households on a comparable basis. The needs of a household grow with each additional member but - due to economies of scale in consumption- not in a proportional way. Needs for housing space, electricity, etc. will not be four times as high for a household with four members than for a single person. With the help of equivalence scales each household is assigned a value in proportion to its needs. The equivalence scale used in the OECD Income Distribution Database divides household income by the square root of the household size. This implies that, for instance, a household of four persons has needs twice as large as one composed of a single person.

To bring back data at the household level, we then multiply income statistics available in the OECD Income Distribution Database by the square root of the household size. For instance, in the case of a household consisting of a couple with two children, we multiply the income data from the OECD Income Distribution Database by two (i.e. square root of four).

How is the poverty line computed?

We compute the income needed to be considered non-poor as half the median income of households of the same size of the respondent's. The median income is the income that divides the income distribution into two equal groups, half having income above that amount, and half having income below that amount.

Data on median income come from the OECD Income Distribution Database

How are 'income diagrams' computed?

In order to further compare the perceived inequality in a society with the actual distribution of income, we divide the population into seven income classes. The 'lower-income' class (lowest bar) covers all individuals with a net income below 50% of median income of the total population. Therefore, the demarcation of the lowest group is equal to the definition of poverty used in this tool. The 'average-income' class covers all individuals with a net income between 50 and 150% of the median income and spans three bars: from 50 to 80% of the median income; from 80 to 110% of the median income; and from 110 to 150% of median income. Similarly, the 'higher-income' class identify all individuals with a net income above 150% of the median income and covers the three highest bars of the diagrams: from 150 to 200% of the median income; from 200 to 250% of the median income and above 250% of the median income.

Obviously, the demarcation of classes remains somewhat arbitrary. However, the demarcation of single groups is not the focus of our analysis. The intention of the definition of these income classes is basically the graphical illustration of the density function of incomes.

Drawing such income diagrams requires information on income at the percentile level, which is currently not available in the OECD Income Distribution Database. For most OECD countries, information on income percentiles have been provided to the OECD by national data providers, and is based on those national sources that are deemed to be most representative for each country. Such information is currently not available for four OECD countries: Chile, Japan, Korea and Turkey.

To which year do data refer?

The information available in the OECD Income Distribution Database is more up-to-date when compared to information available through many other statistical sources, but still reflects the long time-lags that characterise data collection in this field in most OECD countries. For most countries data on income and poverty shown in this tool refer to 2013 or 2012. To bring the figures up to date, we have adjusted them in line with changes in the consumer price index for all goods up to 2014.