The richest fifth of households receive nearly half of all the wages paid in Australia but also get about 12 per cent of all government handouts, new research by the Bureau of Statistics shows.
The findings not only highlight big income disparities across the community but raise questions about the scale of "middle-class welfare" flowing to well-off families.
The richest fifth of households had nearly three-quarters of all savings.
The bureau has for the first time measured household inequality with the same data it uses to calculate key national economic indicators such as gross domestic product.
It revealed the poorest 20 per cent of households receive just 2.5 per cent of the nation's wages and salaries in 2009-10 while the richest 20 per cent gets about 47 per cent. When income, government cash payments and social transfers in kind (such as public education and healthcare) are taken into account the poorest fifth's share of "adjusted disposable income" was 11 per cent and the richest fifth 36 per cent.
But maybe the most revealing finding was the amount of government assistance being transferred to high-income households. The preliminary results showed the richest quintile of households received about 12 per cent of social assistance benefits while the next highest quintile got 11 per cent.
The Bureau of Statistics official Michael Smedes, who presented the findings at an Economics Society of Australian seminar yesterday, said the findings on the distribution of government payments were "counterintuitive.''
Many high-income households qualify for the childcare rebate, which is not means tested, and the private health insurance rebate.
The analysis also showed government assistance to the poorest quintile of households was only marginally higher than the next income quintile.
Australian statisticians are part of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development group developing international standards for measuring household disparities using national accounts - the key indicator of a nation's economic performance.