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Population Characteristics: Social conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up only a small proportion of Australia’s total population. However, as Australia’s original inhabitants and carriers of some of the oldest continuous cultures in the world, they have a unique status in our nation. They are also one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia.1
Differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and all Australians are evident across a range of demographic, social and economic indicators. This article presents a summary of these indicators, and highlights some major areas of disadvantage.
Various estimates ranging from around 300,000 to over one million have been made of the size of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population at the time of European settlement.1,2 In the years following colonisation, the Indigenous population declined dramatically due to the impact of diseases introduced from Europe and repressive treatment by the new settlers, ultimately leading to social, cultural and spiritual disintegration, and dispossession of their land.1,2 At 30 June 1996, Australia’s Indigenous population was estimated to be 386,000, which represented 2% of the total Australian population.3 This showed a 33% growth in the Indigenous population since 1991, which was due in part to increased identification of Indigenous people in Census counts.3,4,5
In 1996 over half of Indigenous people lived in New South Wales (29%) and Queensland (27%). The Northern Territory had the most Indigenous people as a proportion of its population (29% compared to about 3% or less of the population of other States or Territories) (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Growth and distribution of Indigenous people).
Most of the Indigenous population live in major urban and other urban areas, with a smaller proportion living in rural areas. Indigenous people, however, form a larger proportion of the population in rural and remote areas. In the 1996 Census, approximately one in four Indigenous people were counted in non-urban areas compared with only about one in seven people in the total population.3 Data on Indigenous people will therefore tend to reflect some of the disadvantages associated with living in rural and remote areas, e.g. distance from services and limited employment opportunities (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Socio-economic disadvantage across urban, rural and remote areas).
The Indigenous population has a much lower life expectancy than other Australians, therefore the age structure of the Indigenous population is considerably younger than the general population. Two thirds of the Indigenous population (68%) were aged under 30 years of age and very few (3%) were aged 65 and over, compared with 44% and 13% respectively in the general population.
The younger age structure of the Indigenous population has a bearing on some social indicators where age is an associated factor. For example, birth rates may partly be higher among the Indigenous population compared to the total population due to the greater proportion of women of child bearing age within the Indigenous population. Despite the age structure factor, however, there are significant differences in many of the indicators that describe the health and socio-economic status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including fertility and mortality rates (see Health section of this article).
Indigenous people generally have a lower rate of participation in the education system. In 1996, among children aged 16 years, the age at which involvement in post-compulsory secondary school education is most common, only 57% of Indigenous children were students, compared to 84% of all 16 year olds in the total population. The proportion of Indigenous people in the 18-24 year age group attending post-secondary educational institutions was also lower (10% compared to 28%). However, Indigenous people aged 25 years or more had similar post-secondary education participation rates to the total population aged 25 years and over (6% and 5% respectively).
In terms of educational attainment, the 1996 Census showed that a much lower proportion of the Indigenous population held post-secondary qualifications (11%) than the total population (30%). Only 9% of Indigenous people aged 15 years and over had obtained a vocational qualification (basic or skilled), or undergraduate or associate diploma, compared with 20% of the total population aged 15 years and over. The difference between the proportion of Indigenous people who had attained a bachelor degree or higher (2%), and the proportion of the total population who had attained this level of education (10%) was also marked.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have reduced access to employment opportunities, which may affect their motivation to participate in education beyond the compulsory years of schooling. Educational attainment limitations in turn affect the ability of Indigenous people to secure employment, and can contribute to a cycle of poverty.
Language and cultural differences also present barriers to participation in education. In 1996, 5% of Indigenous people did not speak English at all. Of the rest, 26% said they did not speak English well (see Australian Social Trends 1999, Indigenous languages).
The unemployment rate at the time of the 1996 Census was higher for Indigenous people aged between 15 and 64 years (23%) than for all people in that age group (9%).
Compared to all employees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees were more likely to be employed in lower income occupations that may also be perceived as having a lower social status. For example, a higher proportion of the working Indigenous population were employed as labourers (24%, compared to 9%), while a lower proportion were employed as managers and administrators (4%) or senior clerical staff (2%) (compared to 9% and 4% respectively).
The main industries in which Indigenous people were employed in 1996 were health and community services (20% of Indigenous employees) and government administration and defence (15%).3 For all Australians these industries accounted for 9% and 5%, respectively, of all employees.3
The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme makes a significant contribution to Indigenous employment. Under this scheme, a community’s unemployment benefits are pooled to pay wages to people who are working for the community. The jobs created under this scheme provide employment for Indigenous people who live in remote areas, where employment opportunities may otherwise be extremely limited.6
In 1996, the median income received by employed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was substantially less than that received by employed non-Indigenous people ($365 and $493 per week, respectively). This difference is not completely explained by differences in occupation held, level of qualification or age. Indigenous employees had a lower median weekly income than all employees for nearly every occupation group and every level of qualification.5
Consistent with this, and greater levels of dependency on income support, Indigenous households had a lower median weekly income than all households ($540 and $632 respectively).5
The size and age composition of households and families can indicate economic disadvantage when considered in conjunction with income data. At the 1996 Census, the living arrangements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were quite different to those of all Australians. For instance, Indigenous households contained an average of 3.7 persons, compared to 2.7 persons in all households.3 This difference contributed to the difference in household income per capita, which was substantially lower for Indigenous households ($158 per week) than for the total population ($310 per week).
Indigenous families were more likely than other families to be couples with children under 15 years. They also tended to be larger than other families, with 13% having four or more children, compared to 5% of all families. In addition, they were more likely to be one-parent families (30%), than all families (14%). However, Indigenous families were also more likely to live in households with other families, and Indigenous households were less likely to be lone-person households, which indicates a greater extended family network exists within Indigenous communities.
There is a lower level of home ownership among the Indigenous population than is the case in the general population. Home ownership is an important indicator of social disadvantage, as it points both to the financial capacity of a household and also to the degree of security, privacy and autonomy that a household enjoys. Indigenous people are more likely to rent their homes than to own or be purchasing their homes (64% of Indigenous households rent compared to 27% of all households).
People who are socially and economically disadvantaged are at increased risk of becoming involved with the legal system, either as perpetrators or as victims of crime.7
At 30 June 1998, there were 3,750 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander prisoners in Australia, which represented 19% of the total prisoner population. This was nine times as high as the proportion of Indigenous people in the general population (2%). Indigenous people were about 12 times as likely as other people to be imprisoned (1,663 adult Indigenous people per 100,000 were imprisoned, compared to 139 per 100,000 of all adults), and were much more likely to be imprisoned in every age group.
There were differences in the Indigenous and total imprisonment rates by State, but the Indigenous rate was at least six times the total rate in most States and Territories.8 The Northern Territory recorded the highest proportion of Indigenous prisoners to all prisoners (73%), followed by Western Australia (32%).8
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners tend to have been imprisoned at a younger age than the total prisoner population. The median age of Indigenous prisoners was 27 years, compared with 30 years for all prisoners.
Indigenous prisoners were more likely to have been imprisoned for assault (24%) than all prisoners (12%), and less likely to have been imprisoned for drug related offences (1%) than all prisoners (9%).
Violence is often ignored as a risk factor for poor health, but personal safety is an essential element of wellbeing. Indigenous people are more likely than other Australians to be victims of violence. According to the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey, of those Indigenous people aged 13 years or more who said they had been attacked or verbally threatened in the year prior to the interview, some 44% indicated they had been attacked or threatened on three or more occasions.5
There is considerable evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to bear a much greater burden of poor health than do other Australians. The health disadvantage of Indigenous people begins early in life and continues throughout their life cycle.
Although the fertility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is higher than the national average, so too is infant mortality. In 1994-1996, the babies of Indigenous mothers were about twice as likely to be of low birth weight than those of non-Indigenous mothers (12% of Indigenous babies compared to 6% of non-Indigenous babies had a birth weight of under 2500 grams). They were also more than twice as likely to be stillborn or die within the first 28 days of birth than babies of non-Indigenous mothers (22 perinatal deaths per 1,000 Indigenous births compared to 10 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous births).10 Birth weight and premature births are influenced by factors such as the age and overall health of the mother and her access to information about nutrition and cigarette smoking during pregnancy.10
In the period 1991-1996, life expectancy at birth for non-Indigenous males was 75 years, and for females 81 years; for the Indigenous population, it was 57 years and 62 years for males and females respectively.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people tend to die at a greater rate and at younger ages than Australians as a whole. Indigenous mortality data from Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory show that in 1995-97, in these three States combined, there were three times as many deaths among both males and females in the Indigenous population than would have been expected in the general population.11 About 23% of infant deaths were identified as Indigenous in the period.11 More than half (53%) of deaths among Indigenous males occurred among those aged less than 50 years, compared with 13% of all male deaths in Australia. Similarly, 41% of deaths among Indigenous females, and 7% of all Australian female deaths, occurred before the age of 50.11
Age-specific death rates were higher for the Indigenous population than for the total population in every age group, but the largest differences occurred among males and females aged 35-54 years old, among whom the rates were 6-7 times higher. Death rates were disproportionately high among Indigenous males and females for virtually every cause of death. The rates of death from many chronic diseases rose earlier and stayed higher throughout the life span for Indigenous people than for all Australians.11
There are many health risk factors that seriously affect the lives of Indigenous people. For example, in a study of alcohol consumption in the Kimberly area of Western Australia, it was noted that ‘... alcohol has had a major, and generally damaging impact on Aboriginal traditional life, family structure, health and capacity for self-determination’.12 Despite the lower proportion of Indigenous adults who drink alcohol, alcohol continues to be of concern for Indigenous people because those who do consume alcohol are more likely to do so at hazardous levels. According to the 1995 National Health Survey (NHS), 59% of Indigenous adult males reported recently drinking alcohol compared to 66% of non-Indigenous adult males. Of those, 13% of Indigenous adult males consumed alcohol to high levels compared to 5% of non-Indigenous adult male drinkers.9 High-risk drinking was less common among females.
Some Indigenous people face a range of barriers that affect their ability to take actions that lead to improved health. These include access problems, such as distance, availability of transport, access to doctors and pharmaceuticals, and access to culturally appropriate services. Language and cultural differences also present barriers to health service utilisation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.5
While all Australians have free public health cover, a 1997 government funded study found that Indigenous people faced considerable barriers which impede their full access to Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). These barriers related to the extent to which Indigenous people were aware of their entitlements, and to the cultural appropriateness of the enrolment requirements for Medicare and the PBS.13 These factors, combined with financial disadvantage, may compound the health difficulties faced by Indigenous people: for instance, treatment of illness may be deferred.
The above barriers relate to basic health care needs. In terms of the more comprehensive health cover provided by private health insurance, the 1995 NHS showed that non-Indigenous adults aged 18 years and over living in non-remote areas were nearly four times as likely to report having private health insurance as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 years and over living in non-remote areas (43% compared with 11%).5
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1994, Year Book Australia, 1994, No. 76, cat. no. 1301.0, ABS, Canberra.
2 Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics 1930, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 23, 1930, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Canberra.
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Census of Population and Housing: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, Australia, 1996,
cat. no. 2034.0, ABS, Canberra.
4 Ross, K. 1999, Occasional Paper: Population Issues, Indigenous Australians, 1996,
cat. no. 4708.0, ABS, Canberra.
5 Australian Bureau of Statistics/Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1999, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, cat. no. 4704.0, ABS, Canberra.
6 Altman, J.C. 1997, The CDEP scheme in a new policy environment: options for change?, CAEPR Discussion Paper no. 148/1997, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Canberra.
7 Mukherjee, S., Carcach, C., McDonald, D. and Barnes, T. 1998, Occasional Paper: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey: Law and Justice Issues, 1994, cat. no. 4189.0, ABS, Canberra.
8 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, Prisoners in Australia, 1998, A report prepared for the Corrective Services Ministers’ Council by the National Corrective Services Statistics Unit, ABS, Melbourne.
9 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, National Health Survey: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Results, Australia, 1995,
cat. no. 4806.0, ABS, Canberra.
10 Day, P., Sullivan, E.A. and Lancaster, P. 1999, Indigenous Mothers and Their Babies, Australia, 1994-1996, Perinatal Statistical Series no 8, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, National Perinatal Statistics Unit, Sydney.
11 Cunningham, J. and Paradies, Y. 2000, Occasional Paper: Mortality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 1997,
cat. no. 3315.0, ABS, Canberra.
12 Hunter, E., Hall, W. and Spargo, R. 1991, The distribution and correlates of alcohol consumption in a remote Aboriginal population, Monograph no. 12, 1991, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
13 Keys Young 1997, Market Research into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, a report prepared for the Health Insurance Commission, Canberra.