4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Contents >> Chapter 3: Family and Community >> Family, community and wellbeing

Family, community and wellbeing


The care and support generated within families is the foundation for good health and the optimal social functioning of individuals. Ideally an individual's family provides them with the range of care and support functions detailed above. The family is also assumed to be the primary arena in which children learn to function as adults and are socialised in acceptable behaviours. Finally, with its extended and ancestral branches, the family can provide an individual with a sense of identity and context.

There are many reasons why families may not always fully meet this ideal and may negatively influence the wellbeing of their members. Individuals in a family can be affected if a member is unemployed or has poor health or a disability, particularly if this person plays a key role in providing income or care. The greatest responsibility for care of a sick family member or one with a disability often falls on a particular person in the family, who may be prevented from working and/or be reliant on income support because of this caregiving role. Violence within families can be particularly and directly detrimental to the wellbeing of those involved.

Other, more intangible aspects of the family environment can affect individual wellbeing. Both positive and negative examples of behaviour may be set within families, and some family environments can compromise a child's ability to become socially capable, or may contribute to depression, suicide or other health damaging behaviours. The way in which family members interact with each other, whether effectively or dysfunctionally, can influence a child's ability to form healthy relationships in the future, both intimate relationships, and relationships with the wider community. In some cases, the effects of a negative family environment background may be carried across generations, as behaviours and expectations learned in childhood are passed on. However, some individuals may overcome an adverse family background and see it as having contributed positively to their longer term achievements and character.

While there may be individuals whose family plays a negligible role in their life, the wellbeing of individuals living alone, or without family support, can be affected by their lack of family. These people may be more susceptible to loneliness, may be less financially secure, or feel less physically secure in their environment. Individuals in emigrant families may not have the same extended family resources as other families have to draw on in times of need.

An individual's community also has the potential to have a significant impact on their wellbeing. Where a family does not have the resources to provide the necessary care for an individual, community networks and organisations can step in to assist. Neighbours can bolster the sense of security and belonging built up around the family home; clubs and pubs provide venues for socialising and building friendships; and hobby groups and community-run courses contribute to an individual's experience and broader education. Cultural groups can provide a sense of identity to individuals; charity organisations provide goods and services for individuals on low incomes; and social networks can be an important means by which individuals find employment. Conversely, communities which are facing problems such as high crime rates, or where levels of trust and goodwill are low, have the potential to negatively influence individual wellbeing.


'Private social exchanges assisted by public support are the core of social reproduction of the type of society in which we would like to live.'

Australia's Welfare, 1997, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Families and communities are core structural elements in society - the basic building blocks of Australia's national life. Families take on a large portion of the economic and physical burden of care for individuals in society, particularly for children, aged people or people with disabilities. If it is operating effectively, the family, as a self-contained welfare unit, is therefore a crucial mechanism in the health of society as a whole. The family is a primary determinant of whether or not children grow up to be law abiding citizens who are able to contribute to the greater good, and who have the motivation to do so. Because of the fundamental role families play in educating children in a range of social and physical skills, society is highly dependent on positive family functioning. Where families are not able to nurture healthy, confident and socially responsible individuals, the community bears both the financial cost and the wider social consequences.

Local communities also take on caring functions, provide forums for socialisation and relationship building and support the education, sporting or artistic endeavours of their members. The community feeling generated in small towns or localities (e.g. when local athletes compete in State level competition) is often the basis for positive national identification. As self identity develops through a sense of membership of the community, individuals become aware of their responsibilities toward others, which enables them to identify when community norms are violated.1 Caring and support activities, undertaken by and within communities, deliver benefits to the community in several ways. Some individuals and families benefit directly (i.e. those receiving the food, shelter, care, etc.), and this decreases the burden on society overall. In addition, the processes and infrastructures that are initiated and developed in undertaking these functions, in and of themselves, engender trust and cooperation between people and thus strengthen communities. For example, fundraising events and committees, and other forums where groups of people interact and cooperate towards a social good outcome, have inherent value for the community.

Different types of relationships may be necessary to achieve optimal wellbeing for individuals and the community.2 For example, relationships within families and within social or cultural groups (which tend to constitute an individual's core community) can provide affection and friendship, and can support beneficial moral and social values. However, by itself, this type of network can promote narrowness, be oppressive for individuals, or can be exclusive and promote divisiveness in the context of the larger community. Thus these core relationships may need to be combined with looser relationships that range across a variety of social or cultural groups. These broader relationships may be work based, or created through activities people participate in. Such networks can promote tolerance and trust more widely in the community, build people's capacity to work together to achieve a common purpose, or assist in the rapid flow of information. Individuals may also benefit from connections with, knowledge about or access to people in positions of power. Without this kind of connection, it may be difficult for people or groups affected by disadvantage to take successful action to improve their wellbeing.

'. . . publicly provided welfare services, although important, are only a small component of the totality of welfare exchanges. The importance of publicly provided services stems from the fact that they support or back up the care provided by families and individuals. Accordingly, the more important consideration in regard to families and welfare services is not how changes in families may alter the demand for public services, but how public services can support and strengthen families.'
Australia's Welfare, 1997, AIHW

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