AIHW releases 2021 report card on the wellbeing of Australians

The two-yearly Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report on the welfare and wellbeing of Australians was launched today by the release of a video message from Senator the Hon. Anne Ruston, Minister for Families and Social Services.

Australia’s welfare 2021 brings together multiple sources and includes comprehensive data and analysis on the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities across topics such as housing, income and employment, education and social support.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic has touched many aspects of our lives and prompted a renewed community focus on the welfare and wellbeing of Australians,’ said AIHW Deputy Chief Executive Officer Matthew James.

‘Much of the data in the report is from 2020 and early 2021 and tells part of the COVID-19 story from the beginning of the pandemic until the early months of 2021. We have included the most accurate information available at the time of writing and the AIHW regularly releases a range of other reports about welfare and the impact of COVID-19 on our health and wellbeing’

The AIHW publishes Australia’s welfare every two years, and Australia’s health in the alternate years.

Life satisfaction, loneliness and mental health

Social interactions with friends and family is important for wellbeing and mental health.

Some of the measures implemented to manage the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to exacerbate pre-existing risk factors for social isolation and loneliness, such as living alone.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Australians' levels of life satisfaction have changed rapidly over short periods of time. This is unusual as life satisfaction is normally quite stable in Australia.

According to ANUPoll surveys, average life satisfaction for Australians fell substantially during the early stages of the pandemic (from 6.9 out of 10 in January 2020 to 6.5 in April 2020). It then rose as infection rates and lockdown conditions started to be eased (6.8 in May 2020). By January 2021 the average level of life satisfaction had returned to pre-pandemic levels and this remained the case in April. However, in August 2021 life satisfaction was back to the to the same level as April 2020.

‘Experience in Australia since the onset of COVID-19 shows that life satisfaction can quickly rebound - as it did in late 2020,’ Mr. James said.

‘In regards to loneliness, in April 2020, the ANUPoll survey found that 45.8% of adult respondents reported that they were lonely some of the time. This fell to 35.2% in November 2020 and was 36.7% in August 2021.

‘The ANUPoll surveys also found that the proportion of Australian adults experiencing severe psychological distress is higher now than it was prior to the onset of the pandemic. In August 2021, 10.1% of adults experienced severe psychological distress - up from 8.4% in February 2017,’ Mr. James said.

‘For people aged 18 to 44, average levels of psychological distress were higher in 2020 and 2021 (including August 2021) than they were before the pandemic, especially for those aged 18–24. However, those aged 45 and above experienced either little change or improvements in their level of psychological distress.’

At the onset of the pandemic, there were concerns that any economic downturn could have a significant negative impact on the number of deaths by suicide in Australia.

‘The AIHW has compiled data from suicide registers as part of our work on suicide and self-harm. This has shown that, despite initial fears, COVID-19 has not been associated with a rise in suicide rates,’ Mr. James said.

Social cohesion

Between February (pre-pandemic) and May 2020, there was a significant increase in Australians’ perceptions of social cohesion, as measured by whether they thought most people could be trusted, were fair and most of the time tried to be helpful. In August 2021, this measure of trust remained notably higher than it was prior to the onset of COVID-19.

The ANUPoll survey measures social cohesion on a scale of 1 to 10, with a higher average score indicating greater perceived social cohesion. In February 2020 (pre-pandemic), the average score was 5.5. This increased to 6.0 in May 2020 and 6.2 in October 2020. The average score in August 2021 was 6.0 out of 10 – still above pre-pandemic levels.


Between March and April 2020, the number of employed people aged 15 and over fell by 592,100. This was the largest monthly fall in employment since the current labour force series commenced in February 1978. By early 2021, the labour market had rebounded and most employment measures were faring better than prior to the pandemic in March 2020.

In July 2021, Australia’s employment rate for people aged 15-64 (76%) was at a record high and unemployment (4.6%) and underemployment (8.3%) were below their March 2020 levels. However, the Reserve Bank of Australia noted in August that current lockdowns due to COVID-19 were likely to temporarily reverse improvements in the labour market.

‘The Australian Government introduced the JobKeeper Payment to help keep businesses trading and people employed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, the first month of the JobKeeper Payment, around 3.4 million employees received the payment. By July 2020, the number in receipt of the payment reached a peak of 3.7 million before starting to decline, Mr. James said.’

Welfare spending and support payments

Welfare spending grew by 12% to $195.7 billion between 2018–19 and 2019–20. The main driver for this increase was the economic measures the Australian Government introduced in response to COVID-19.

In the 12 months to June 2021, the number of income support recipients declined from 5.8 million to 5.4 million, reflecting the easing of restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. However, recipient numbers in June 2021 were still 7.4% higher than in March 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting on business in Australia.

'As at 25 June 2021, 5.4 million people aged 16 and over received an income support payment,’ Mr. James said.

‘Of these: 48% received the Age Pension, 21% received unemployment payments, 20% received disability-related payments, 6% received parenting payments, 5% received student payments and 0.2% received other payments.’


House prices were briefly dampened by the 2020 recession but by Quarter 1 2021, were rising at the fastest quarterly rate since 2009.

Among the existing private renter market, many households benefited directly or indirectly from the rare situation of rental price deflation that affected many capital city locations during 2020. In many regional settings, however, aspiring local homebuyers and renters are facing greater competition to secure suitable properties for a number of reasons including people remaining in the regions and people leaving some of Australia’s major cities.

‘Federal, state and territory governments introduced emergency measures to protect both existing renters and homeless people from negative impacts of the pandemic,’ Mr. James said.  

‘For example, in the 6 months to September 2020, pandemic Emergency Accommodation (EA) programs saw over 40,000 people assisted in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia’.


Many families and students have had to quickly adapt to an online learning environment during the pandemic.

‘In May 2020, 76% of adults with children had kept them home from child care or school due to COVID-19,’ Mr. James said.

‘Preliminary NAPLAN results for 2021 suggest that the pandemic had little overall impact on students’ literacy and numeracy overall, however the full impact of COVID-19 on learning and teaching is yet to be fully understood. From 2008 to 2021, National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) mean scores have generally improved across all domains, except writing.’

More broadly in education, the report shows that the Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rate for people aged 20–24 in 2020 was 89% – up from 83% in 2008. There were 266,565 apprentices and trainees in Australia, down 3.9% from 2019.’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

In recent years, there have been improvements across a range of measures of health and welfare for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

‘The median equivalised household income for Indigenous Australians grew 29% between 2002 and 2018–19, twice the growth rate of non-Indigenous Australians (14%) over the same period after accounting for inflation,’ Mr. James said.

‘Between 2014–15 and 2018–19, the proportion of working age Indigenous Australians relying on a government pension or allowance as their main income source fell from 47% to 45%’.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities are at high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and severe outcomes due to a range of health and socioeconomic inequalities.

As of 15 August 2021, there had been 293 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Indigenous Australians since the start of the pandemic. This includes 145 confirmed cases since the beginning of 2021 (1.3% of all cases in the period), and 148 in 2020 (0.5%).

Australia’s population and migration

'International border closures and other factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to see Australia’s population growth slow to the lowest rate in over a century.'

‘Australia’s population increased from 17.1 million at 30 June 1990 to 25.7 million at 30 June 2020, with average annual growth of 1.4% over this period,’ Mr. James said.

‘Based on projections from the Australian Government’s Centre for Population future population growth is projected to remain positive but slow over the next few years, falling from 1.3% last observed in 2019–20 to 0.1% in 2020–21 and 0.2% in 2021–22– the lowest level since 0% growth was recorded in 1916–17. The population is projected to reach 29.1 million by 30 June 2032.’

Australia has experienced, and is forecast to continue to experience, a net outflow of people – falling from an inflow of 195,200 people in 2019–20 to around -97,000 people by the end of 2020–21, and -77,000 people in 2021–22 before increasing to 235,000 people in 2024–25.

Australia’s total fertility rate has been falling (from 1.87 babies per woman in 1989–90 to 1.65 in 2019–20). It is assumed to fall to 1.58 babies per woman in 2021–22 before increasing in later years and stabilising by 2030–31 (at 1.62 babies per woman). 

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