On “average”

The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.

First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.

The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn’t necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler’s comment explaining deciles, below.]

Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.

Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.

None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.

And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.

That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.


* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.

14 thoughts on “On “average”

  1. Actually he uses the median for the area and the average for Auckland, which is interesting, because they’re completely different measures. Typically if the median and average are the same it means a roughly even spread of income, ie the top earners aren’t earning a hugely disproportionate amount compared to the bottom earners – but that only works if it’s the median and the average for the same group of people, which this isn’t. His sentence actually means nothing at all. We can’t compare the two statistics.

    I also think there’s something even more subtle they achieve by framing this family as average, and by linking “average” to “just more than the Working for Families cut off”. It makes people think that programs like WFF only applies to those who are below average. Them poor folks, in other words. Which isn’t true. WFF is incredibly comprehensive, it benefits basically every family where at least one parent is earning except for the exceedingly rich, but people who buy into the “we need to cut social welfare” line overwhelmingly have a tendency to downplay the amount of social welfare that benefits them.

  2. Perhaps I’m being over-generous, but I assumed that because Collins used one median figure, an apples comparison would require another median figure, and the use of the word “average” in that second phrase was simply idiomatic.

    You make a good point re the WFF threshold.


  3. I don’t want to seem anti-British, but it does strike me how often the “average” or “representational” kiwi is a British immigrant.

    I think there is a hugely aspirational qualty to these “average” families/individuals, and I think the Britishness is a part of that as much as the above-average incomes and education is. Most lifestyle magazine readers would faintly like to be British as much as they’d rather like to be able to have/be a stay-at-home parent or earn a $100K plus salary.

  4. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”.

    Decile 5 is not middle of the road, it is below average socio-economically. The median student attends a decile 6 school (and quite close to a decile 7: 68th percentile). School deciles ratings are calculated by reference to the number of schools, not apportioned across pupil numbers. More students attend decile 10 schools than attend decile 1 and 2 schools combined. Decile 5 and below cater for the poorest 41%, not the poorest 50%. Even if Edendale moves up in the world, it is likely only to move from poorer than average to average.

  5. Graeme, thanks. Notwithstanding that decile 5 was cited as “the middle” in the article, I’ve added a qualifier above.


  6. A person working a 40 hour week on mn wage will earn $28,080 per annum. Surely then this median wage figure that has been cited includes part time and casual workers in its measure. If this is the case then it simply has no/very little relevance to the article. Median household income in Auckland would seem a more relevant measure (granted that this family would be above average there as well, but not anywhere near as high as the 4 times figure you have referred to above).

    Personally, I think the fact that a family that earns a decent household income but is unable to afford to buy a house in the area that they live is a sad fact of life in this country.

    I struggle to see how you can so confidently classify this family in the terms that you do above. While they are not average clearly in some respects (education for example), I think the position that their household is in – working hard to make ends meet, raising a family and wishing they could buy a house but are not in a position to places them closer to the average than you otherwise think.

  7. hrs, a good argument if there were full, or nearly-full employment — but that’s not the reality. Unemployment due to a lack of jobs, and high underemployment due to people being reluctant to risk leaving their old job in a weak employment market, coupled with the effect of policies like the 90 day trial-period law, which increase workers’ inertia — that is the reality. A family in which both adults were in secure paid full-time work, in this economic climate, would scarcely be “average” either.

    I don’t want to get into speculating about the Rays’ circumstances outside the specific points revealed in the article; such as the decision for only one of them to seek paid work, or discussion of whether they could really afford a mortgage if they really tried — we don’t know their circumstances, and they are real people who have put enough of themselves into the public sphere as it is. They deserve to retain their dignity. I accept that outside the objective data, their subjective experience is probably not a rare one. But I would suggest that in the economic conditions that obtain, “working hard to not really make ends meet” is probably more common than actually making ends meet.


  8. The article is also a useful illustration of the opposition’s failure.

    The parents specifically mention four Labour/Green policies they could support (on CGT, income tax, asset sales, and public transport) while approving other “government” policies which are more Maori Party than National (e.g. on tobacco).

    Yet the budget is “sensible”, and it is implied that they are more likely to vote National, because the alternative is “Greece”. We can blame the MSM as much as we like, but ultimately that’s a triumph of Key-spin, and an indictment of Labour’s woeful performance, not least from their (so-called) strategists.

    Why didn’t the family rant on about right-wing bloggers? Isn’t that the top priority for “average” Kiwis?

  9. Wall Street is a bleedingly obvious antithesis to “Greece”, and the Opposition should have used that to set the agenda, but they didn’t. Instead they seem to be fighting over matters that are nowhere near as bitter as the Lange-Douglas split.

    So it’s up to grassroots or otherwise independent efforts to fight the misinformation. And especially where the Govt looks hypocritical, such as the Roads of National Significance and farm subsidies dressed up as irrigation schemes. And of course, “NZ has a growth problem, not a debt problem.”

  10. The alternative interpretation is that New Zealand has developed a significant cultural indicator of the slide towards a third world economic structure – poverty blindness on the part of the ruling class, who genuinely are no longer able to “see” anyone in the lower half of society. I have noted this developing attitude in our middle class as fully apparent amongst South American friends of mine I have from Argentina and Chile. They all have great lives and good jobs and as far as most of them are concerned the poverty in their own countries might as well be in Africa for all they really care.

  11. @sammy, excellent point.

    It seems a good indicator that the public, for whatever reason, isn’t interested in policy that much. And the “Greek bogeyman” obviously has a lot of buy-in outside the commentariat.

  12. “poverty blindness on the part of the ruling class”

    Or if they aren’t blind, then it’s razor wires, burly Blackwater mercs and armoured Hummers.

  13. Sanc, I think that’s a decent assessment. But hard to reconcile this blindness (wilful or otherwise) to poverty in one’s own community with the sort of plebophobia revealed by the prevailing discourse of punitive welfare-reform, “underclass” rhetoric and so forth.


  14. I would guess that poverty blindness has to come with a thicket of prejudice dressed up as rationalisation and self-justification. If you adopt – even just subconsciously – the creed that you are better than the poor by dint of your own efforts and possibly superior breeding then the first allows you to dismiss them from you consciousness as deserving of their fate (poverty blindness) and the second allows you to consider the poor as less human than you, and therefore in need of a variation of the sort of direction and reward/punishment regime used for other domesticated creatures.

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