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New Zealanders Divided On Social Issues

A wide-ranging survey by Massey University reveals that New Zealanders are divided about the causes of social inequality and what should be done about it. The survey also throws light on attitudes to big earners and the unemployed and reveals big differences between young and old on taxation and government spending.

The survey is part of the Cologne-based International Social Survey Programme, which involves leading academic institutions in 32 countries in annual surveys of economic and social policy issues. New Zealand is represented by Massey University and the programme leader is Professor Phil Gendall, head of the University's Department of Marketing.

The New Zealand survey shows ambivalence about the causes and consequences of inequality and how, or even if, they should be mitigated. However, most New Zealanders believe income differences in our country are too large and should be reduced by a more progressive tax system that reduces the tax burden on low income and middle income earners and increases it on high income earners. But there is also a strong belief that effort, competence, skills and responsibility should be reflected in how much people earn.

New Zealanders are divided on whether the government should reduce taxes even if this means spending less on social services, or spending more on social services, even if this means higher taxes. Nevertheless, there is widespread support for increased government spending on health services, education, job training and assistance for the unemployed, and pensions.

Most New Zealanders would prefer a more egalitarian society, but although there is strong support for many elements of the welfare system, there is growing concern about its effects on self-reliance and the willingness of people to help each other.

Other key points:

* Most respondents (75%) agree that income differences in New Zealand are too large. Lower income earners are seen as underpaid and higher earners as overpaid. * Most New Zealanders favour a progressive tax system; 60% think higher earners should pay more tax and 70% think taxes on lower income earners are too high. However, 50% think tax on middle income earners is about right. * Respondents believe those in elite occupations deserve about three times as much as ordinary workers, but respondents believe they actually earn more than six times as much. * Respondents believe unskilled factory and shop workers earn about $20,000 but deserve $25,000, while company chairmen earn about $200,000 but deserve $100,000, and cabinet ministers are seen as earning $120,000, when they only deserve $80,000. * New Zealanders are divided on whether the government should reduce taxes or spend more on social services; 45% believe it should spend more, 40% believe it should reduce taxes. * Those most strongly in favour of lower taxes are under 40. Those most in favour of more spending on social services, even with higher taxes, are over 60. * Areas favoured for more government spending are health services (90% in favour), education (80%), job training and pensions (60%). * Areas favoured for reduced spending include special assistance for Maori and Pacific Islanders (55%), sporting events like the Commonwealth Games (50%), and defence (45%).

The nation-wide mail survey was conducted amongst 2,100 people, randomly selected from the Electoral Roll, between June and August 1999. The response rate was 61% and the margin of error is 3%.

Further information from the survey and a photograph of Professor Gendall are available on the Massey web page

Professor Gendall is available for interview. Also available for comment is Massey University Professor of Social Work Professor Robyn Munford who says: "The survey shows up some negative attitudes towards social services and those who need help. One reason is that New Zealanders have only a generalised picture of who these people are and the cause of their need. We have to put these issues clearly before people, right down to a neighbourhood level. We need to explain what we mean by welfare spending."

Contact: Di Billing 06 350 5095 025 534 562

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