Australia’s health by socio-economic status

However you describe it, being poor, disadvantaged, or living in a low socioeconomic area is more likely to make you more susceptible to preventable chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.

Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021 reports on the health status of Australians based on their socioeconomic standard which the study has found has a major impact on people’s health. Families and individuals with limited resources not only have more chronic disease, they are at greater risk of dying prematurely as a result of chronic health conditions. People living with mental ill-health are less likely to participate in employment, which in itself, is associated with an improvement in general mental health levels.

The ten million people living in the 40% of communities with lower and lowest socioeconomic status have much higher rates of preventable cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory diseases than others in the population. These communities also have the highest rates of suicide throughout the nation.

Risk factors that are likely to contribute to this higher rate of illness and premature death include:
• Physical inactivity
• Lifetime alcohol consumption
• Daily tobacco use
• Unemployment as a result of mental health issues.

These health disparities within the Australian population are persistent despite considerable policy reform and efforts to improve services in recent decades. The targets for a healthier Australia were developed by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration, a national network of leading health experts and organisations. The Collaboration has worked with the support of the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University since 2014 to influence public and policy awareness and action to reduce high rates of preventable chronic disease in the Australian population.

The report sets health targets for medical conditions such as:
Obesity – Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma, back pain and some cancers.
High cholesterol – High levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol are a risk factor for heart disease. National data from 2011-12 is the most recent available data and indicated that close to one-third of all socioeconomic groups were estimated to have high cholesterol levels.
High blood pressure – Rates of reported high blood pressure are relatively consistent across socioeconomic groups. High blood pressure is often caused by poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity and excessive alcohol consumption. It is a risk factor for chronic conditions including stroke, heart diseases, and chronic kidney disease
Diabetes – Hospitalisations and deaths related to diabetes are, respectively, 2 and 2.3 times as high in the lowest socioeconomic communities compared to the highest.

Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021 report, The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University. Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status 2021 report

New Year resolutions for a lucky country

It’s the start of a new year and it’s the perfect time to make your own resolutions for the year. Lose weight, get more exercise, drink less alcohol – we all know about those. We also know that if we don’t incorporate those resolutions into our daily routine from day one, we are not likely to succeed.

Taking a national perspective – it’s been a year where managing the pandemic has been a world-wide priority rather than taking any positive policy steps. Australia has not experienced the same kind of turmoil as the US or the UK but as we come out of the pandemic crisis, what should be the policy focus for our country? What do you think should be included in the Australian government’s New Year resolutions? To be on their To Do list from day one.

Here are a few suggestions:
• Distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to anyone at risk.
• Raise the JobSeeker allowance by $100 per week.
• Recognise our First Nations people in the Constitution.
• Introduce carbon-pricing for all industries to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040.
• Implement a nation-wide bushfire emergency plan.
• Close Nauru and bring all refugees to Australia.
• Buy all the empty apartment blocks around Sydney and use them to provide affordable housing.
• Initiate key recommendations from Aged Care Commission in all aged care homes.
• Develop a plan for all coal industry workers to transition to renewable energy industries.
• Reduce the registration costs for all electric cars.

Super in the time of pandemic

Is our retirement system good enough? Superannuation should enable all people to have an adequate standard of living when retired, according to the Retirement Income Review into the Australian retirement system. The system should not just provide a means for wealthy people to become wealthier, with the help of generous tax concessions.

The Review found that two groups have high levels of financial stress compared to people below age 65: those renting in retirement and those who are involuntarily retired before age pension eligibility age. Retirees who rent in the private rental market are likely to live in poverty and those early retirees living on JobSeeker payments are the worst affected. Even with the age pension and additional rental assistance, these retirees experienced higher levels of financial stress and poverty than the rest of the population.

Following 426 submissions and meetings with 100 stakeholders, Treasury has released the Review’s Final Report which makes findings on how the superannuation system interacts with the age pension, the aged care system and the tax concessions that benefit high wealth individuals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to the livelihoods of individuals and to businesses on a global scale. Less obviously, most people’s retirement savings also have decreased significantly over the past year. Retirees who rely on their super to top up age pension payments remain concerned that their super investments have been affected by market volatility, leading them to worry that their loss in savings will have long-term effects.

Retirement savings and owning your own home are the most important ways to ensure that people have a buffer in retirement. High rates of home ownership in Australia reduces housing costs in retirement and boosts living standards. Additionally, their home is an asset that they can sell to provide a deposit for aged care or for additional funds if necessary.

While the age pension helps to offset inequities in retirement, its “bare bones” level of income does not provide enough to provide for those without other income. In particular, it does little to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups such as women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those with disabilities who have not been able to accumulate sufficient retirement savings in their working life.

One of Treasury’s first observations was that the current retirement system is complex and poorly understood by many people, both before and during retirement. Then more complications arise when it interacts with the aged care and tax system.

The Report suggested some changes to the retirement system to improve its fairness such as:
• removing the $450 per month income threshold before the superannuation guarantee can be paid;
• paying superannuation while on employer paid parental leave, and
• ensuring that all employees are paid the benefits to which they are entitled.

Australian superannuation funds hold $2.9 trillion of assets invested in local and overseas financial markets. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns of businesses and associated job losses, superannuation proved a welcome financial resource for many who had lost their employment. Over 4 million applicants were able to access their super under the Early Release scheme to supplement their wages or JobSeeker allowances. In total $37.4 billion was paid out in the June 2020 quarter to applicants, a 77.7% increase from the March 2020 quarter.

Many commentators were concerned that low to middle income earners who accessed their super early would be severely disadvantaged in being able to accumulate sufficient funds for their retirement as well as making them more likely to be reliant on the age pension. The debate about allowing people to access their super to fund a deposit for a house has not been resolved with arguments on both sides. In my opinion, too many people have drawn on their super in ways that provided only a temporary benefit now, while suffering a substantial long-term loss to their level of super when they retire.

I look forward to the government’s response – will they improve the system for the most disadvantaged people in the retirement system? Much more needs to be done.

Treasury, 20/11/20, Retirement Income Review – Final Report, https://treasury.gov.au/publication/p2020-100554

How easy is it being green?

You don’t have to be a “greenie” to be an environmentally-friendly person. We know that our governments need to do a lot more, but personal actions count too. You can actually make small changes in yourself and in your household. Making your own contribution to reducing your carbon footprint and reducing your plastic usage is one of many practical steps that you can take to having a greener, more sustainable lifestyle. Here are a few more ideas:

Solar panels – if you own your own house, the emissions and cost benefits stand out. Installation is so reasonable with government rebates available that you can recover your costs within three years because your power bills will be so reduced. You can sell any excess energy back to the grid.

Power bills – replace your old light bulbs with LED globes – cheaper and longer-lasting than conventional globes in the long-term.

Recycle – you can recycle so much in your daily life. You probably already separate your household waste into recyclables and greens but that is not all. Start collecting your old batteries, watches, printers, cables – you will be surprised at how much electronic gear you have.

Recycle clothes – each year, Australians send around $500m worth of clothing to the tip. You can reduce how much goes into landfill by sorting through your clothes before you donate. There is a simple test – would you give this item to a mate? If the answer is no, then you should be thinking about dropping those items to a textile recycling bin, like those managed by Planet Ark. If you just don’t like the clothes, or they don’t fit but are in good condition, donate them to the many charity bins that you find around the place.

Recycle water – having shorter showers just requires a little forethought. You can also set up a system to re-use the grey water from your shower or your washing machine, or use the runoff from your gutters to water your garden.
Compost – only veggies go into your compost bin to keep it nice and healthy. Cheaper and easier than any bought fertiliser and growing your own herbs and veggies is cheap and personally rewarding.

Transport – use public transport whenever you can to reduce your carbon emissions. (You will be healthier too because you will be walking more as well!) With electric vehicles becoming cheaper, think about making the switch when you’re thinking about replacing your car. If you drive a lot and have solar panels on your roof, you will save thousands by recharging at home.

Refuse and re-use plastic bags – once you get organised, you can really reduce the amount of plastic bags you collect from supermarkets. Most supermarkets have plastic recycling bins as well these days, but better to not take them in the first place.

Invest wisely – insist that your superannuation fund only invests in ethical products on your behalf. If you invest in shares, only choose ethical products (don’t believe the myth that you will have to accept a lower return – the research says the opposite). Then find a bank that doesn’t lend money to fossil fuel projects; you will probably save money on bank fees at the same time.

Vote thoughtfully – before you vote for the political tribe that normally gets your support, have a closer look at the climate, energy and environmental policies of some of the main parties, behind the misleading rhetoric. The science says that we have stop using coal and gas as fast as we can, with no new fossil-fuel projects. Don’t believe anybody who says we can’t afford it – that’s just not true.

Recycle your legacy – choose a headstone for your burial site that is made from your own recycled clothes and belongings. Contact http://www.smart.unsw.edu.au/smart-recycling. Or you can even recycle an old headstone that is no longer being used.

It’s not too hard being green – even a small change will make a difference.