The cross-cultural validity of labour force statistics about Indigenous Australians

Author/editor: Smith, D
Year published: 1994
Issue no.: 69


This paper considers the cross-cultural validity of standard social indicators with reference to the Indigenous population of Australia. Official indicators of the labour force status of Indigenous Australians, developed from 1991 Census data, are critically examined in terms of their methodological and conceptual bases, and in light of information from ethnographic field studies. The paper argues that while the indicators may be useful in highlighting broad socioeconomic disadvantage among Indigenous Australians, a range of cultural factors directly influence data collection and statistical outcomes, so that resulting indicators of employment and unemployment have significant shortcomings. In particular, the indicators are found to underestimate the extent of Indigenous unemployment and especially long-term unemployment, to display definitional ambiguity, obscure key characteristics of Indigenous involvement in the mainstream labour market, and ignore culturally-grounded economic decisions. However, these shortcomings of the labour force indicators are counterbalanced by the growing reliance by government and Indigenous groups alike, on the available markers of the continuing economic disadvantage of Indigenous people relative to other Australians. Finally, options are presented for expanding the accuracy and validity of official indicators.

This paper considers the determinants of employment income for Indigenous Australians compared with non-Indigenous Australians. Ordinary Least Square (OLS) regression techniques are applied to 1991 Census data to consider the question: does the lower income of these Indigenous people reflect differences in their factor endowments (like education) rewarded in the labour market, or are they rewarded differently for the same set of endowments than are non-Indigenous Australians. The results show that the main source of lower incomes for Indigenous Australians was their smaller endowment of human capital characteristics. The paper concludes with a discussion of the policy implications of these results.

ISBN: 0 7315 1743 1

ISSN:1036 1774

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