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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Because of the diversity that exists in types and structures of families it is necessary to make some decisions about scope in order to define families for statistical measurement. Inherently this involves narrowing the definition of the family and restricting who is considered a family member.

Care, nurture and economic support are usually provided by related people who live in the same dwelling - by co-resident fathers, mothers, spouses or siblings. Because this has traditionally been true, and continues to be true in most cases, this immediate family group is targeted by assistance programs and policy, and is the focal point for the administration and receipt of many social policy initiatives (e.g. income support benefits). For these reasons the ABS family counting unit is identified by the presence of couple relationships, lone parent-child relationships or other blood relationships, within a household.

The ABS standard definition of the family counting unit is: 'two or more persons, one of whom is at least 15 years of age, who are related by blood, marriage (registered or de facto), adoption, step or fostering, and who are usually resident in the same household. The basis of a family is formed by identifying the presence of a couple relationship, lone parent–child relationship or other blood relationship. Some households will, therefore, contain more than one family.'

While the family counting unit as defined has practical advantages, it also has some disadvantages. Many families interact beyond the bounds of a single household, particularly in terms of the family economic environment. Parents may provide financial and in-kind support to adult children living away from home, people provide meals or transport for their elderly or disabled relations, and there are often transfers of cash and in-kind income between families (included in the ABS framework for economic wellbeing). There are also situations, such as group households, where care and support functions are shared by household members who are unrelated. There may be people living in a household who are unrelated to any families within that household, e.g. boarders, who will be classified as non-family members, regardless of the family connections they may have outside that household, or the care relationships within the household. These kinds of transactions, and extended and non-family relationships, need to be measured in ways other than by using the standard family counting unit.


There are a number of ways of organising the collection and analysis of family and community statistics. One way of mapping the care and support terrain surrounding an individual is to identify and classify the communities in which the individual is embedded.

Communities can be identified as either core communities (i.e. those involving primary attachments) or wider communities (those involving secondary attachments). Core community relationships may be involuntary ones relating to birth or place of origin (e.g. parents, ethnic community attachments) or voluntary ones (e.g. spouse, friends). The wider community can be subdivided into formal and informal communities, that can be broadly delineated according to level of organisation, objectives and sources of funding. These ideas are summarised in the diagram below.

Image - Communities in the social environment

Using this structure, data collection can be organised around the expected functions of each community type, and the adequacy and effectiveness of each community type in providing these functions. To this end, useful measures might relate to the capacity of families to perform core community functions (i.e. to provide care, economic security, guidance and identity to the individual - as discussed in detail above).

All entities in the wider community have functions associated with their own specific objectives. However, some key functions relating to care and support can be identified and monitored. At the level of government and government institutions, the formal community provides services in line with identified areas of social concern (e.g. health, education, etc.), and assists the core community to carry out its functions. Government services also supplement or supplant the core community in particular areas. Some key government community services are described below. Other elements of the formal community, e.g. charitable organisations, also assist the core community to carry out its functions.

The informal community, when functioning optimally, supplies miscellaneous and ad hoc support to individuals and families through neighbourhood interactions or through other informal networks, such as those built up within the workplace. Among other things, social capital measures aim to capture the success of the informal community in performing these functions.

Ultimately, the responsibilities of individuals within the core community, the functions of the core community, and the receipt of support from the wider community are at the heart of successful, or potentially successful, human relationships. Measuring and monitoring these community functions is therefore central to measuring wellbeing within the family and community area of concern.


As discussed in the introductory section, communities can be conceptualised in various ways. However, a widely used approach is to consider communities in terms of the geographic areas in which people live. Within this approach, there is a large range of choice when defining specific communities. Options available from the Australian Standard Geographic Classification, described in Chapter 2, include defining communities in terms of urban centres or localities, regions that notionally have a common economic base, areas of governance (States/Territories and Local Government Areas) and suburban areas, to name a few. Decisions about how to identify communities ultimately depend on the particular issues to be investigated. Thinking about how to choose and define areas that represent communities optimally is, however, being advanced by a number of bodies. A recent example is the development of the notion of 'social catchment' areas to define communities in non-metropolitan areas.3 These areas are functional areas based around one or more urban places where much social and economic activity is focused and which the people living in the area are likely to identify as being their community. While the criteria used to develop such areas have yet to obtain wide acceptance in terms of application, they point to some ways in which more effective means for defining communities may be established.


The many areas of government community service that need to be monitored and informed can be classified into four main groups.

Children's services - aim to support the provision of affordable, quality child care, and to protect children at risk of harm. Children's services cover child care services for children under school age and of primary school age, preschool services and child protection services. Children needing protection include those who have been or are being abused or neglected; or whose parents cannot provide adequate care or protection.

Family services - aim to support families, particularly those in crisis, to improve their quality of life. Some family service programs, such as the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program provide emergency accommodation and crisis care for families and individuals.

Aged care services - include residential, community and housing aged care services. These aim to provide high quality, cost effective services across a diverse framework of needs – many of which are informed by housing statistics (see Chapter 8).

Disability services - aim to support people with a disability and their carers, taking into account the specific needs of individuals and focussing on facilitating participation in the community. Services provided or funded by the Commonwealth State Disability Agreement (CSDA) and those funded under the Home and Community Care program (HACC) form the bulk of the disability specific welfare services. Services provided under the CSDA include accommodation, in-home support, respite care, community support, and disability specific employment services, and are focused mainly on people aged under 65 years. HACC services cover both people with a disability and the frail aged, and are focused on enabling people to remain in their own home. HACC services include home nursing, delivering meals, home help and maintenance, transport and shopping, respite, and assessment and referral.


Defining the scope and boundaries of Australia’s formal system of welfare and community services has always been difficult for policy makers and statisticians.
One important conceptual distinction to make in this area is the difference between welfare services and social security. Welfare services tend to be those that involve the delivery of direct and personal services such as child care and home help, and tend to differ somewhat between the States and Territories. Welfare services are often of interest in other areas of social concern, such as housing. Social security relates mainly to payment of cash benefits and pensions. Social security payments tend to be uniform nationally.

The National Community Services Information Management Group (NCSIMG) has developed a framework that maps the formal community services sector in terms of the information required about it and available from it. This framework (the National Community Services Model) provides a structure for community service information. It aims to describe data elements that are commonly applicable throughout the community services sector, to put these into an internationally standardised form, and to promote the use of these standards in community services data collection. Among other elements, the model identifies these headings under which community service information can be categorised:
  • Parties, i.e. either persons, families, households or other groups, and their characteristics. Person characteristics in this model include demographic, socio-cultural, educational, labour, accommodation, income, legal, impairment, disability, functional and other characteristics. For groups, such as households or families, the main characteristic identified is income.
  • Events, e.g. birth, change in environment, economic transaction, referral.
  • Environments, e.g. social, cultural, economic, political, physical, equipment.
  • Enabling factors, e.g. resources, knowledge, availability, accessibility.
  • Roles, e.g. citizen, carer, recipient, service funder, service provider.
  • Location, i.e. address, service delivery setting.

The NCSIMG National Community Services Data Dictionary provides important meta-data for this framework.4


Another approach to organising family and community data is to examine key players and transactions using the transaction model described in Chapter 1. Some examples of important care and support exchanges involving families and communities are shown below.

Image - Care and support transactions

Three main forms of exchange that occur within families and communities in relation to care and support emerge. These are: exchanges that occur within households or families; those that occur between individuals and the wider community; and those that the family unit undertakes with the wider community. When these exchanges take place, it is usually with the aim of maintaining, improving, or repairing the wellbeing of one or both parties involved. These exchanges are therefore useful indicators of wellbeing and how it is changing within the family and community
area of concern.

Individual transactions within the family - People in a family are bound together by obligations of blood or marriage into a small enterprise. This binding enhances the exchange of a range of emotional and material resources aimed at achieving optimal family functioning. In some families, members have specific roles and responsibilities, which are often gender based, such as the provision of day-to-day care or of economic security, while in others these roles are shared by family members.

Individual transactions with the community - Family members also engage in a range of transactions with family and friends outside the household and with the wider community with the aim of improving their own, and/or the family's wellbeing. Individuals receive various forms of support from the community. For instance, the marketplace allows family members to earn income, and educational institutions provide a forum for learning new skills. More direct support is received from the community in the form of government benefits or charity. The benefits arising from these improvements in the wellbeing of individual family members can be shared in transactions within the family, and this is often their primary application.

Family transactions with the community -The main transactions involving the family as a unit occur with government or non-government welfare organisations, often as a result of a change in a family's structure or in its ability to function effectively. For example, family composition may change as a result of a family member leaving that had performed a core emotional or financial function, or because a dependent person joins the family, e.g. a new baby. Similarly, family functioning may change if a family member becomes ill or disabled and becomes a receiver of support rather than a provider. In such circumstances the family may enter into transactions with the formal community to receive a range of benefits and/or services. A family may also undertake transactions with the marketplace as an economic production or trading unit if it runs a family business.


Indicators of wellbeing need to illuminate the changes people may experience over time, as well as their current quality of life. In terms of families and communities, change can be categorised into two types.

(i) Structural change, which occurs in response to external changes and reflects changes in the wider social and economic environments in which people live. The social structure or environment may change because of shifts in population structure, density or mobility. Wars, environmental pressures, migration, unemployment, or legislative change can prompt transitions in families and communities. Governments may alter their expectations about the responsibilities or key functions that families or the community should perform. Structural change that weakens whole communities, such as the closing down of a key regional industry, can lead to a family experiencing disadvantage across a range of areas, for example reduced access to employment or training opportunities, leading to reduced economic wellbeing and greater dependence on welfare.

(ii) Life course change, which occurs in response to internal changes in families or communities. At any one time family or community members have differing and particular physical, financial, emotional or practical needs, according to their age and the developmental stages they are experiencing. There are any number of transitional events associated with life course change for families, for example, the birth of a child, a child leaving home, retirement or death of a family member. These changes form the basis of a measurement model described below that can be used to organise the collection of family statistics.


Families and households can be classified in terms of their particular state at any one point in time. The family and household type classifications outlined below perform this function. That is, they classify families as being couple families with or without children, one-parent families, or another type of family. Within these categories, there are further different types of family. For example, families with children may have one child, or several children; they may be supporting children who are students, or consist of an elderly parent with an adult child. These kinds of categories and subcategories will usually only be operative for a family for a finite period, as families will change in structure as the people in them move through the life cycle. Children grow older and leave home, siblings find partners, and elderly parents die. Transitions that impact on family type can also be classified, for example, as births, deaths, marriage or partnering, a child leaving home, couple separation. These classifications of states and transitions can be used together to describe and analyse family dynamics, and the number and type of transitions experienced by families can be counted to provide insight into family wellbeing.

Particular data sets will provide information about particular family stages and transitions. Data providing insight into family formation includes data about marriages (registered and de facto), such as age of marriage and remarriage, and births, including fertility rates, age of childbearing, number of children, etc. Data providing insight into family dissolution includes data about the separation and divorce of couples, children leaving home, and deaths.

Each of the above transitions has the potential to affect the economic security of a family, particularly the birth of children. Some transitions may increase the wealth of the family (e.g. a child leaving home). Data about these transitions therefore provides some insight into the economic functioning of families. Other transitions, such as the death of a family member, may cause stress and disrupt the family's optimal functioning, and can reflect on the resilience of families.

The model described indicates some key family states and transitions. The examples provided cover a variety of situations. A typical flow may involve two people living in separate households who come together as partners and form a third household and a couple family. This family may go on to have children, thus changing their family status to couple with children. Later, when that child leaves home, he or she may create another household, and the parent's family status will change once more. When partners separate, new households can again be created. One may be a lone-person household, the other may consist of a one-parent family. Most life cycle transitions, particularly those relating to the formation and dissolution of relationships may occur at any age and may also recur. For example, a person may marry and divorce several times during their lifetime, and may have children in any or all of those relationships. Thus at various stages they may be a lone person, a spouse or partner, a parent, a lone parent, a partner again, a divorcee, and so on.

When considering the state of a family and the transitions it has experienced, it is important to consider the age of the family and family members. For instance, a couple-only family, who are yet to have children and are at the beginning of their working lives, may differ dramatically in their needs and functioning from a couple-only family whose children have left home and who have left the workforce. Some examples of family dynamics in terms of states and transitions are provided in the diagram below.

Image - Life cycle transition model


There are four main classifications used by the ABS to describe family structures within households. These classify people, families, households and couples (detailed descriptions of these and other family statistics concepts can be found in Standards for Statistics on the Family, ABS, (Cat. no. 1286.0).

Relationship in household (classifies people) - This classification classifies each person living in a household and is used to determine familial and non-familial relationships between these individuals. The classification has four levels of categories. The highest, or broadest, level identifies eight categories of people:
  • husband, wife or partner;
  • lone parent;
  • child under 15;
  • dependent student;
  • non-dependent child;
  • other related individual;
  • non-family member; and
  • visitor.

Within these categories, further characteristics are identified, such as sex, which allow for classification of relationships at more detailed levels (e.g. same-sex couples can be identified). Relationship in household information provides the basis for classifying people by family type, household type, marital status and income unit type, and can be used to derive other family related information, such as the identification of step and blended families.

Family type (classifies families) - This classification is used to differentiate families within a household from one another and to classify each family. It is based on the familial and dependency relationships that exist between family members, i.e. on the presence or absence of couple relationships, parent-child relationships, child dependency relationships, or other blood relationships. The family type classification is hierarchical and at its highest level four family types are identified:
  • couple family with children;
  • couple family without children;
  • one-parent family; and
  • other family.

At this level of the classification, each category includes a wide range of families. The family classification does not currently distinguish between couple families who are childless and those who have children that do not live with them. Similarly, the category one-parent family includes both families where there is a lone parent with young children and families where an aged parent lives with a mature adult child. However, such distinctions may be incorporated into the classification in the future.

The second level of this classification introduces the concept of child dependency to provide more detail about family type within couple and one-parent families. Further levels of detail identify non-dependent children and the existence of other relatives. Provision is made for separate identification, where required, of opposite sex and same sex couples within couple families. The classification of family type is used by ABS both to describe the counting unit 'family' and as an attribute of the counting unit 'person'.

Household type (classifies households) - The household type classification is used to identify whether a household is a family household or not, and the type of non-family household. The latter category provides for the identification of lone person households and group households. The household type classification also identifies the number of families in a household and the presence of non-family members in family households.

This classification is expressed in terms of the number and composition of families within households and is thus determined by the relationship of household members to each other and the existence or absence of familial relationships.

Marital status (classifies people) - In accordance with the recommendations of the United Nations, the standards for marital status specify two distinct variables: registered marital status and social marital status. The registered marriage variable classifies people as never married, widowed, divorced, separated or married. The social marriage variable includes a category for de facto marriages and classifies people according to their usual living arrangements. The social marital status variable is used to identify the presence of all couple relationships within a household. The social marital status classification is most commonly used and has at its highest level the categories 'married' and 'not married'.


In consultation with experts from various disciplines, the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services (DFACS) has also developed a framework for measuring key aspects of family wellbeing. It embodies many of the dimensions described in this book, both within this chapter and those more fully articulated in the following chapters. Referred to as a 'causal pathways' framework, it presents a focused view of the various resource domains that affect family functioning, with particular reference to factors that are likely to affect the wellbeing of children. Thus, it identifies both the family and social resources which children may or may not have access to, and that may impact on their development.

Five major categories of resources, referred to as resource domains, are presented, namely: income; time; human capital; psychological capital; and social capital. This framework of resource domains is then used to present a range of possible indicators, as a basis for assessing a child's developmental outcomes but which, at the same time, also reflect on family wellbeing.


Social indicators

As described in Chapter 1, social indicators are summary measures which reflect on aspects of social wellbeing which, when produced repeatedly over time, can indicate how social conditions are changing. There are many examples of social indicators used to reflect on the wellbeing of the whole population that can also be used to describe the wellbeing of particular communities, especially when communities are defined in terms of groups of people living in particular geographic areas. Examples of such indicators include: the population growth rate, the unemployment rate, crime rates according to specific offences, the proportions of people whose principal source of income is from government pensions and benefits, and the number of doctors per head of population. However, there are many more and; as illustrated by recent activities in this field both in Australia and overseas;5 there has been growing interest in developing indicator sets which help to provide multidimensional views of community strength or wellbeing.

Socioeconomic indexes for areas (SEIFA)

Socioeconomic indexes for areas, as produced by the ABS, are summary measures which draw on a range of information to differentiate between areas that are relatively advantaged from those that are relatively disadvantaged. The information used to construct the indexes is mostly about the characteristics of individuals and households within each area which is available from the Censuses of Population and Housing. Five indexes, named as follows, have been produced for each of the most recent censuses:6
  • Urban Index of Relative Socioeconomic Advantage (limited to areas in urban areas with a population of 1,000 or more);
  • Rural Index of Relative Socioeconomic Advantage (limited to areas outside urban areas with a population of 1,000 or more);
  • Index of Relative Socioeconomic Disadvantage;
  • Index of Economic Resources; and
  • Index of Education and Occupation.

Each index has a different set of underlying social and economic variables and the last three have been produced for all Census Collections Districts (CDs) in Australia. Index scores are also available for larger geographic areas such as Statistical Local Areas. However, the scores become less useful at higher levels of area aggregation as the extent of heterogeneity among population groups also increases with increases in the spatial unit.

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