Editorial: Go figure the figures

Last updated 05:00 10/11/2012

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OPINION: Two weeks ago we carried a story saying that 707 people were collecting the unemployment benefit in South Canterbury.

Yesterday we said 1600 people were unemployed in the region.

So which is right?

Well, both actually. It just depends on whose figures you use, and your definition of unemployed.

The first number is clear cut.

The Social Development Ministry knows for a fact that on a particular date it was paying 707 people in South Canterbury the unemployment benefit.

There may well be more people who considered themselves unemployed, but they were of no concern to Social Development. Simple.

And good news as well, as the number was down 19 per cent on a year previously.

The 1600 figure however comes from something called the Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS), conducted quarterly by Statistics New Zealand.

And while it's a survey, it's considered to yield the most reliable data on employment.

It canvases 15,000 households every three months, or roughly 30,000 people.

Once your name (address) is plucked at random you're on the survey for two years. Interviews are face-to-face, or, if you're busy hiding behind the curtains (or at work), they ring you later.

You don't get paid for it, but if you did you wouldn't be unemployed any more.

You'd have the equivalent of a job, because the HLFS counts working for an hour a week for pay as employed.

You're unemployed if you haven't got a paid job, are available for work and have actively sought work in the last month. It doesn't matter if you're collecting the benefit or not.

Interestingly, there's a classification called jobless, which includes among others a definition that you could be actively seeking work, but you're not available for work. Apparently this means you could be discouraged, or are just having a flick through the situations vacant ads in the paper.

What all this says to me is the unemployment figure finally produced could be quite distorted, especially if you are considered to be employed on just an hour's work a week.

The saving grace is each quarterly survey is done on the same basis, so they can be compared.

And there again South Canterbury looks good, with a lower unemployment rate, 5.2 per cent, than just about anywhere.

Who'd want to argue with that figure?

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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