1286.0 - Family, Household and Income Unit Variables, 2005  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 01/06/2005   
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This document was added or updated on 23/04/2007.


40. A number of concepts are common to most of the variables overviewed here. In addition to the family, which is discussed above, these concepts include:

  • household
  • household and family reference persons
  • usual residence
  • couple relationship
  • child
  • child dependency
  • nominal child and nominal parent
  • income unit


41. The concept of a household underpins the collection and dissemination of statistics on families and households. In the ABS a household is operationally defined as:
  • 'One or more persons, at least one of whom is at least 15 years of age, usually resident in the same private dwelling'.

42. Thus all private dwellings in Australia by definition contain only one household. This definition of household aligns with current ABS practice and makes no significant difference to existing time series data.

Household and family reference persons

43. The concepts of household and family facilitate the identification of a household reference person and family reference person(s) who are used as the basis for determining the relationships between the usual residents of the household.

44. The household reference person is a household member whose relationship with all other members of the household may be described in terms which identify the composition of the household and are meaningful to family formation. The relationship between each individual and the household reference person is also a means of identifying relationships between other members of the household, in order to further clarify household and family composition.

45. A family reference person is a household member who forms a family with other members of the household. The identification of family reference persons is used to determine the relationships between other family members. As such, the person who is identified as the family reference person needs to be the person to whom relationships with all other family members can best be described. In households which contain more than one family, a family reference person must be identified for each family. This allows each family living in the household to be treated as a separate entity.

46. As a family reference person must be identified for each family in a multifamily household, there needs to be a separate variable associated with each person in the household indicating to which family that person belongs. This variable is referred to as the family number. See The family number under Coding Procedures in 'Relationship in household'.

47. Although the primary use of the concepts of household and family reference persons is in coding and processing data, the concepts may also be used to form output variables. This occurs when characteristics of the reference person are used as indicators of characteristics of the household. For example, occupation or qualifications of the reference person may be used as an indicator of the socio-economic status of the family or household. Accordingly, it is necessary to have a set of criteria for determining the reference person who is most appropriate for such purposes.

48. In a single family household, the household reference person and the family reference person are the same person. A standard hierarchic set of criteria is used to determine the most appropriate household member to be the household reference person. These criteria are explained in the 'Relationship in household' standard, Appendix A - Identifying household and family reference persons.

49. In multifamily households, where family coding is less straightforward, a more detailed procedure is needed to determine the appropriate reference persons. Once the household members have been allocated to families, the responses provided on the collection form are further processed to determine a reference person for each family. The rules for determining families in multifamily households are explained in the 'Relationship in household' standard, Appendix A - Identifying household and family reference persons.

Usual residence

50. The concept of usual residence is used to constrain the description of relationships, family type, household type and social marital status to people who usually reside with a particular household. Persons who are temporarily residing with a household during the survey period and are usual residents of another household are considered to be visitors.

51. The concept of usual residence is based on the fact that each person has a basic attachment to a particular dwelling. However, this concept embodies two forms of attachment. The first is attachment to the dwelling in which a person lives the majority of the time, known as 'Usual residence in a dwelling', and the second is attachment to the dwelling which a person considers to be their family home, known as 'Usual residence in a household or family home'. The first concept is used for producing estimates of the usual resident population by geographic area which the Statistician is under a legislative obligation to compile. These estimates are used as the basis for allocating resources. In particular, population estimates based on the Census are used to determine the number of seats allocated to each State and Territory in the House of Representatives and also for the allocation of Financial Assistance Grants by the Australian Government to the States and Territories. The second concept is used in the Monthly Population Survey (MPS) and most other ABS household surveys. It is used for the collection and output of data for units of analysis such as households, families and income units. In operational terms, it is the dwelling a person perceives to be his/her home.

52. Consequently the ABS has two definitions of usual residence, as follows:
  • the dwelling (address) at which a person has lived or intends to live for a total of six months or more in a calendar year
  • the dwelling (address) that the person regards as their 'home'

53. A more detailed explanation of the concept of usual residence and the definitions and applications of the concept can be found in the 'Usual residence - concepts and methods paper' (ABS cat. no. 1389.0) on the ABS Website.

Couple relationship

54. The concept of couple relationship is common to all family related variables. A couple relationship exists when:
  • two people are usually resident in the same household;
  • a social, economic and emotional bonding, usually associated with marriage, exists between the partners; and
  • the partners consider their relationship to be a marriage or marriage-like union.

55. In most statistical collections it is not practical to ask questions which will determine whether bonding usually associated with marriage exists between two people. Accordingly, two individuals are regarded as a couple if both are reported as being usually resident in the same household and living together in either a de facto or registered marriage. The formalisation of these living arrangements through a ceremony is not necessary.

56. In practice, a couple relationship is deemed to exist when the relationship between two people usually resident in the same household is reported as: husband, wife, spouse, partner, de facto, common law husband/wife/spouse, lover, boyfriend, girlfriend. Any relationship label which indicates that a couple relationship exists should be accepted, unless one of two circumstances applies. One, if the relationship is further qualified by the respondent to indicate that he or she does not consider that a couple relationship has been formed. For example, if the respondent indicates that a person is their boyfriend and then goes on to say 'but, we aren't de factos', the individuals are treated as unrelated. Two, a relationship between two females described as girlfriend is not regarded as evidence of a couple relationship unless one is specifically indicated by the respondent. The word friend on its own is not taken to be sufficient evidence that a couple relationship exists. Thus, the definition of a couple relationship is:
  • a couple relationship is defined as two people usually residing in the same household who share a social, economic and emotional bond usually associated with marriage and who consider their relationship to be a marriage or marriage-like union. This relationship is identified by the presence of a registered marriage or de facto marriage.

57. The restriction of couple relationships to usual residents in a household is a necessary practical consideration for conducting household-based surveys. Therefore, a marriage or partnership between a person usually resident in a household and a person who is a usual resident of another household (a visitor) is not recognised in the standards for 'Relationship in household', 'Family composition', 'Household composition' or 'Social marital status'. However, a registered marriage between a person who is usually resident in a household and a person who is a usual resident of another household is recognised in the standard for 'Registered marital status'.


58. In these standards the definition of a child is primarily a function of an individual's relationship to other household members, regardless of age. However, all persons under 15 years of age are defined as children. The identification and classification of children into different types is based on reported relationships and the presence of dependency relationships within the family. It is through the dependency relationships that the definition of a child is broadened beyond the relationship of a natural, adopted, step or foster son or daughter to include otherwise related and unrelated individuals aged under 15.

59. The definition of a child is:
  • A person of any age who is a natural, adopted, step, or foster son or daughter of a couple or lone parent, usually resident in the same household. A child is also any individual under 15, usually resident in the household, who forms a parent-child relationship with another member of the household. This includes otherwise related children under 15 and unrelated children under 15.
  • In order to be classified as a child, the person can have no partner or child of his or her own usually resident in the household.

60. There are three types of child identified in the 'Relationship in household' classification:
  • Child under 15
  • Dependent student
  • Non-dependent child

61. The differentiation of children into these three types is based upon the dependency criterion and is designed to identify families with different structures and needs. Dependency as used in these standards refers to economic dependency and is applied only to the population of people who could be described as 'children'. It is thus not intended to measure an aged or disabled person's dependency.

Dependent child

62. Dependency is assumed to exist when an individual living in a family household is likely to be unable to support himself or herself financially and is thus reliant on another usually resident individual(s) for the provision of his or her financial needs (meals, accommodation, other expenses). As indicators of economic dependency two barriers to full-time employment are used: age and student status.

63. The dependency criterion is applied to two groups of people in slightly different ways: children under 15 and dependent students. The reason for applying it to children under the age of 15 is that persons of this age are not legally able to work full-time and thus cannot support themselves. This criterion applies not only to natural children but also to nephews, nieces, cousins and unrelated children who live with a family.

64. The concept of dependency is further applied to another group of people, those 15-24 years old and studying full-time, who are also assumed to be unable to support themselves financially since, by virtue of their student status, they are generally unable to work enough hours to fully support themselves. In this instance, the dependency criterion is not as widely applied as it is to children under 15 in that unrelated people who live with a family, and otherwise related family members such as nieces, nephews, cousins etc. who are studying full-time, are assumed to be receiving support from outside the household. Thus only natural, adopted, step, and foster children are defined as dependent students.

65. The ABS has undertaken an extensive review of the concept of child dependency in order to determine both the most appropriate and operationally feasible method of denoting dependency. As the concept of dependency used is one of economic dependency rather than social, legal, psychological, physical or any other form of dependency, it was acknowledged that an actual measure of economic activity would be more accurate than the current student status indicator. However, because of practical collection considerations and the necessity of retaining continuity in time series, the ABS has concluded that it is most appropriate for child dependency to continue to be measured by age and student status.

66. As children over the age of 15, who are not studying full-time, are in a position to be employed full-time, they are classified as non-dependent children.

Nominal child and nominal parent

67. In many households in Australia, the composition of those households and the relationships between persons in them are more diverse than those generally regarded as being traditional 'nuclear' families. Often the relationship between adults in the household and dependent children (persons aged under 15 or full-time students aged under 25) would not be captured by basic coding methods. This is explained in the 'Relationship in household' standard. In order to better reflect the nature of those relationships, where to all intents and purposes a 'parent-child' relationship exists, and therefore to facilitate a more accurate and analytically useful picture of the 'family-type arrangements' that may exist in those households, the ABS uses the concepts of the 'nominal child' and 'nominal parent'.

68. Where a child under 15 is a usual resident of a dwelling where their parent is not a usual resident, that child must be allocated a 'nominal parent', and in the process becomes a 'nominal child' who is subsequently treated, particularly for output purposes, as identical to a natural, adopted, step or foster child. Full-time students aged 15-24 years are never allocated nominal parents. Consequently if that student is a usual resident of a dwelling where their parent is not a usual resident, the student is unable to be defined as 'dependent'. The student becomes a related (or unrelated) person in that household.

Income unit

69. The economic wellbeing of a person is not always readily apparent from the individual income of that person; an example is the dependent child. However, the family as defined in these standards will in some cases be too broad for use as a basic statistical unit for analysis of income, its level and distribution. Therefore the ABS assumes that there are groups of related persons who, by virtue of their relationships, systematically pool all their income and savings and share equitably in the benefits derived from access to financial resources. These groups of related persons are known as the income unit.

70. At the basis of the income unit there is a relationship between persons which is measured by their 'Relationship in household'; persons who are not related do not form income units together but are considered to be single persons with sole command over their income, consumption and savings. Thus in a given household an income unit may be an individual, every person in a family or household, or a group somewhere in between. Income units consist in the first instance of persons in a couple relationship, along with any dependent children. Subsequently lone parent income units are identified. Then any other person aged 15 or over who is not identified as a dependent student forms a separate One person income unit. Finally unattached children under 15 are allocated nominal parents.

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