Indigenous household demography and socioeconomic status: The policy implications of 1996 Census data

Author/editor: Daly, A, Smith, D
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 181


The paper presents an analysis of Indigenous household demography and economic status relative to non-Indigenous Australian households. An innovative combination of economic analysis of 1996 Census data and ethnographic research is used, and reveals that Indigenous households are experiencing substantial and multiple forms of economic burden in comparison to non-Indigenous Australian households and that they display significantly different characteristics. The findings highlight a number of policy implications.

Research findings

Ethnographic research suggests that Indigenous households in the 1990s were characterised by considerable compositional complexity, porous social boundaries and large size. They commonly consist of extended families whose members may live together in a single physical dwelling, but more often than not will be residing across several nearby dwellings. Indigenous households are more likely to contain sole parent families and have, on average, a larger number of children than non-Indigenous Australian households. The adults are younger, have lower levels of income and education and are less likely to be in employment than non-Indigenous Australians.

The important demographic trend at the household level indicated by the 1991 and 1996 Censuses is the substantial relative increase in the total number of Indigenous households; an increase of 25 per cent compared to 9 per cent in non-Indigenous households. The increased population count has had a marked impact on the apparent urban-rural distribution of the Indigenous population. At the household level, while the major trend is that Indigenous households are urbanising, they nevertheless remain relatively remote in geographic terms compared to non-Indigenous Australian households.

The 1996 Census data indicate the median income of Indigenous families is about 69 per cent of that of non-Indigenous Australian families. Because of the larger average household size, the median household income per the median number in an Indigenous household is 54 per cent of that of non-Indigenous Australian households. Given the prevalence, noted in the ethnographic literature, of extended family formations, kin-based demand sharing, erratic sources of wage income, recycling unemployment, and high mobility and visitor rates, the authors surmise that the economic burden experienced by low-income multi-family Indigenous households is more substantial than the census depicts.

Conclusion and policy implications

  • The emphasis on individual-centred data analysis obscures key areas of economic vulnerability at the family and household level; arguably the more relevant social groupings in Indigenous society. Similarly, a policy and program emphasis on individuals is likely to address only certain areas of disadvantage, ignoring others which have a profound economic influence.
  • A demographic analysis of Indigenous households, particularly when embedded in an ethnographically informed framework, suggests that there is need for an even finer-grained policy approach than the ëremote-urbaní divide.
  • An area of particular concern for policy makers and program delivery should be the economic wellbeing of large multi-family Indigenous households in which there are sole parents, high rates of adult unemployment, high visitor rates and high childhood dependency burdens.
  • Policy and program delivery could usefully be re-evaluated to take into account the economic needs of these vulnerable households. A greater focus on family types within households at the regional level may also lead to more effectively targeted outcomes from government policy and programs.

ISBN: 0 7315 2616 3

ISSN:1036 1774

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