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Population Characteristics: Socio-economic disadvantage across urban, rural and remote areas
Information on social inequality and levels of disadvantage according to where people live, be it in urban, rural or remote parts of Australia, can allow for better targeting of assistance. Increasing concern about the hardships being faced by people in rural and regional Australia (exemplified by the $1.8 billion package for these areas in the Federal Government’s 2000 budget) highlights the demand for such information.2
ACCESSIBLE AND REMOTE AREAS
Measuring socio-economic disadvantage is not a straightforward exercise because disadvantage is a relative concept which involves value judgements and because there are many, often interrelated, dimensions to disadvantage. Social inequality and disadvantage is typically associated with low income and with those groups that have high levels of dependency on the social security system, such as the unemployed and one-parent families. Levels of educational attainment and the ability to speak English well also affect life opportunities to the extent that some people may experience substantial disadvantage in getting jobs, in making use of available services, or in protecting their rights. In terms of places where people live, other aspects of disadvantage relate to the number and viability of local industries (which provide employment opportunities) and the access people have to various goods and services. The latter is clearly more of an issue for people living in more remote communities than for those living in, or close to, major urban centres.
One measure (known as the Index of Relative Socio-economic Disadvantage) which incorporates a wide range of information from the 1996 census, can be used to identify areas with relatively high proportions of people which have characteristics associated with low socio-economic status (see box below). The index is useful as it allows small areas, namely, census collection districts (CDs) - typically clusters of 200-250 dwellings - to be ranked according to their index score from highest to lowest. Having identified the most disadvantaged CDs (taken as the 20% with the lowest index scores) this review then identifies their location by using two classifications of area which together usefully summarise the pattern of human settlement in Australia. The first classification divides the population according to an urban/rural dichotomy (largely based on sizes of urban centres), while the second takes into account levels of remoteness. The latter (see box above) distinguishes between areas that could be expected to have ready access to goods and services (such as those that may be available to people on farms or in small towns living close to major cities) from those living in remote and geographically isolated communities.
Distribution of people living in the most disadvantaged CDs
In 1996, of the 3.3 million people living in the most disadvantaged CDs, 1.9 million lived in major urban areas (urban areas with more than 100,000 people) and a further 650,000 lived in other areas defined as being highly accessible, generally regions surrounding the major cities (see map). The remaining 830,000 lived in areas with lower levels of accessibility with 140,000 living in the remote/very remote parts of the country.
When compared to the distribution of Australia's total population between urban, rural and remote areas, the distribution of people living in the most disadvantaged CDs showed some differences. People living in the most disadvantaged CDs were under-represented in major urban areas and over-represented in smaller towns and localities. They were also over-represented in remote areas.
In 1996, 56% of all people living in the most disadvantaged CDs were in major urban areas compared to 63% of the total population. In contrast, 39% of all people living in the most disadvantaged CDs were in other urban areas and rural localities (combined) compared to 26% of the total population. The over-representation of people living in the most disadvantaged CDs in smaller towns is evident among towns located in highly accessible areas as well as those in more geographically isolated areas.
For the areas in between towns and localities (described as rural balance areas), their share of all people living in the most disadvantaged CDs was on the low side: 5% compared to 12% of the total population living in rural balance areas. This under-representation was especially evident among those in highly accessible rural balance areas (1% compared to 6%).
In contrast, among the comparatively small numbers of people in the most remote parts of the country the pattern was reversed. That is, these areas’ share of people living in the most disadvantaged CDs was higher than their share of the total population (1.4% compared to 0.8%).
Insights into differences in the nature of disadvantage in different places are obtained by looking at particular socio-economic characteristics of people living in those areas.
The table on this and the following page presents a range of socio-economic status indicators that highlight some of the differences between people living in the most disadvantaged CDs and Australia’s total population. The table also shows differences among those living in the most disadvantaged CDs according to where they live.
Although not necessarily calculated in the same way, most of the socio-economic status indicators shown in the table contributed to the construction of the Index of Relative Socio-economic Disadvantage. Some of the observed patterns are therefore predictable.
It can be seen, for example, that the average income (here measured at the per capita level because household sizes vary) among those associated with the most disadvantaged CDs was substantially below that of the total population ($223 and $310 per week respectively).
However, income levels differed considerably among people associated with the most disadvantaged CDs depending on where they lived. Those in remote/very remote rural localities and in remote/very remote rural balance areas had the lowest incomes (average household per capita incomes of $171 and $156 per week, respectively) which compared to $229 per week among those in major urban areas. Other indicators show that this difference is largely associated with the high representation of Indigenous people in remote areas.
Yet other indicators reveal the depth of disadvantage experienced in some communities. For example, school participation rates among children aged 16, which in 1996 stood at 80% among all children in Australia, varied from 72% for those living in the most disadvantaged major urban CDs, down to around 30% for those living in the most disadvantaged CDs located in small geographically remote communities (again, those remote rural localities and rural balance areas where the proportions of Indigenous people were high).
In the major urban areas where a high proportion of people associated with the most disadvantaged CDs live, other dimensions to disadvantage can be seen. Major urban areas contain a relatively high proportion of migrants from countries other than main English-speaking countries (19% of the total population of major urban areas in 1996). Largely associated with this group, a relatively high proportion of people who do not speak English well or at all (4%) live in major urban areas. Previous studies have shown that these groups, particularly recent migrants, have lower employment and income levels than other citizens (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Migrants in the labour force). Consistent with this, the most disadvantaged CDs in major urban areas had a higher proportion of migrants from countries other than main English-speaking countries (26%) than their share of the total population in major urban areas (19%); and a higher proportion of people with English language difficulties (9% compared to 4%). In contrast, these groups were not highly represented in the most disadvantaged CDs outside the major urban areas, probably because relatively few people from countries other than main English-speaking countries lived there.
Other dimensions of disadvantage can be seen from the given tables which, taken together, help to show that the needs for support will differ for people living in different areas. More detailed studies showing particular places experiencing disadvantage, of which a number have recently become available, can further help target the provision of services to those in greatest need.4,5,6,7
1 Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care 1999, Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA), Occasional papers series no. 6, Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, Canberra.
2 Regional Australia: Making a Difference, Statement by the Honourable John Anderson MP, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Minister for Transport and Regional Services and Senator the Honourable Ian MacDonald, Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, 9 May 2000, Ausinfo, Canberra.
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Information Paper, 1996 Census of Population and Housing: Socio-economic Indexes for Areas,
cat. no. 2039.0, ABS, Canberra.
4 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Australia in Profile: A Regional Analysis, cat. no. 2032.0 ABS, Canberra.
5 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute 1999, Community Opportunity and Vulnerability in Australian Cities and Towns: Characteristics, Patterns and Implications, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
6 Haberkorn, G., Hugo, G., Fisher, M. and Aylwar, R. 1999, Country Matters: Social Atlas of Rural and Regional Australia, Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.
7 Bray, J. and Mudd, W. 1998, The Contribution of DSS Payments to Regional Income, Technical series no. 2, Department of Social Security, Canberra.