A person’s wellbeing is the interplay of many interrelated factors. This includes health status, individual behaviours (such as being a smoker, being immunised, or having a healthy diet), education level, employment status and social support networks. Wellbeing is also influenced by the formal and informal services and supports a person receives in time of need, which can help bolster wellbeing (see also Understanding welfare and wellbeing).

This page focuses on:

  • contextual factors particularly important for understanding the welfare of Indigenous Australians
  • information on the welfare of Indigenous Australians and factors influencing this
  • an overview of wellbeing outcomes for Indigenous Australians
  • information on the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap strategy.

For demographic information on the Indigenous population, see Profile of Indigenous Australians.

Contextual factors

This section provides an overview of some historical factors that are important in understanding the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, with a focus on the Stolen Generations. 

Aboriginal Australians have lived in Australia for around 60,000 years, and Torres Strait Islanders for about 10,000 years (Pascoe 2012). More than 200 distinct languages were in use at the time of European colonisation. Reflecting this history, Indigenous Australians remain a diverse group, with many languages, histories and cultural traditions. Land was, and continues to be, central to Indigenous culture, customs and laws.

In the 1900s, governments aimed to assimilate Indigenous Australians into ‘mainstream’ society, resulting in the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families. This is now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’ (SCRGSP 2018). By 1972, the state and territory legislation that created the Stolen Generations had been formally repealed. Removal practices ceased (HREOC 1997), although there were lags in the repeal of legislation and changes in practices in some jurisdictions.

The Stolen Generations are a particularly disadvantaged group of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population (AIHW 2018b). Their forced removal from families and subsequent disconnection from Indigenous culture and land have had widespread negative impacts on their wellbeing and that of their families.

In 2014–15, an estimated 20,900 surviving members of the Indigenous population born before 1972 had been removed from their families (Figure 1; see notes for information on the analysis). Of these:

  • about two-thirds (66%, or an estimated 13,800 people) were aged 50 and over
  • 56% were women (an estimated 11,700 people)
  • the majority (79%, or an estimated 16,600) lived in non-remote areas (ABS 2016b, AIHW 2018b).

This figure shows the distribution in 2014–15 of the estimated 20,891 surviving members of the Indigenous population born before 1972 who had been removed from their families. The figure shows that New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia had the largest numbers of people who reported having been removed from their families. In 2014–15, nearly three-quarters of the removed population lived in New South Wales (30%), Western Australia (22%) or Queensland (21%).

Impact of removal from family

Using ABS survey data (ABS 2016b), the AIHW analysed various outcomes for Indigenous Australians born before 1972 who reported being removed from their family (AIHW 2018b).

This group experienced adverse health, cultural and socioeconomic outcomes at a rate higher than the Indigenous population that had not been removed.

Compared with Indigenous Australians not removed, those born before 1972 who reported being removed were:

  • 3.3 times as likely to have been incarcerated in the previous 5 years
  • 1.8 times as likely to have government payments as their main source of income
  • 1.7 times as likely to have experienced actual or threatened physical violence in the previous 12 months
  • 1.6 times as likely to have experienced homelessness in the previous 10 years.

See Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations and descendants: numbers, demographic characteristics and selected outcomes for additional information on health and socioeconomic outcomes for the Stolen Generations and their descendants.

Measurement and determinants of Indigenous welfare

A broad range of factors can positively or negatively affect the welfare of Indigenous Australians. Welfare is closely linked to health and is influenced by social determinants such as education, employment, housing, access to services, culture, and community networks and safety. An individual’s knowledge, attitudes and health behaviours, as well as access to appropriate welfare services and support, also contribute to welfare outcomes.

The welfare of Indigenous Australians has improved in a number of areas:

  • Increases in Year 12 completion—the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent increased from 47% in 2006 to 65% in 2016 (see also Indigenous education and skills).
  • Increases in home ownership—in 2016, 38% of Indigenous households were home owners, an increase from 32% in 2001 (see also Indigenous housing).
  • Decreases in household overcrowding—the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over living in an overcrowded household decreased from 25% in 2008 to 18% in 2014–15.
  • Decreases in homelessness—in 2016, about 1 in 28 Indigenous Australians were homeless (3.6% of the Indigenous population). This was an improvement from 2006 when about 1 in 18 Indigenous Australians were homeless (5.7%) (ABS 2016a; AIHW 2019; PM&C 2019).

Despite these improvements, Indigenous Australians continue to experience disadvantage across a wide range of outcomes. They have a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians and are more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness, violence and imprisonment (AHMAC 2017).

Indigenous community functioning

For Indigenous Australians, wellbeing encompasses both individual wellbeing and community wellbeing (AHMAC 2017; Taylor et al. 2012). Indigenous communities pass on knowledge, tradition, ceremony and culture from one generation to the next through language, performance, protection of significant sites, storytelling and the teachings of Elders.

Community functioning can be defined as the ability and freedom of community members and communities to determine the social context of their lives, and to translate their capability into action (AHMAC 2017).

Six themes central to community functioning from an Indigenous perspective are:

  • connectedness to country, land, and history, culture and identity
  • resilience
  • leadership
  • having a role, structure and routine
  • feeling safe
  • vitality (AHMAC 2017).

These themes—shown in Figure 2 with selected measures of each theme—are based on workshops undertaken to develop community functioning measures for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework (see AHMAC 2017). Select a theme to learn more about it.

For more information about Indigenous community functioning, see AIHW 2017:221–40 and AHMAC 2017:63.

This figure shows selected findings from the 2014–15 NATSISS across 6 community functioning themes:

  • connectedness to country, land and history, culture and identity
  • resilience
  • leadership
  • having a role, structure and routine
  • feeling safe
  • vitality.

Examples of findings under the connectedness to country, land and history, culture and identity theme include that, in 2014–15, 74% of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over recognised their homelands, 62% identified with a clan or language group, 82% had family or friends outside the household who they can confide in, and 49% felt able to have a say within the community on important issues some, most, or all of the time.

Welfare support and services

A person’s interaction with both formal and informal welfare support and services can help support their wellbeing.

Informal carers provide care to family members, friends or neighbours within the context of an existing relationship. The demands of the role, however, often go beyond what would normally be expected of the relationship. Informal (unpaid) care provided by family and friends often complements formal (paid) services from government and other organisations.

The 2016 Census of Population and Housing included a question about whether people had provided unpaid assistance to someone with disability, a long-term health condition or a problem related to old age in the 2 weeks before Census night. In 2016, of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over for whom responses to this question were provided:

  • 15% had provided unpaid assistance to someone with disability, a long-term health condition or a problem related to old age in the 2 weeks before Census night
  • 18% of females had provided unpaid assistance, compared with 12% of males
  • the proportion who had provided unpaid assistance was similar among people living in remote areas and non-remote areas (16% and 15% respectively) (ABS 2019).

See also Informal carers.

Welfare support provided or funded by governments is complex and wide ranging. While welfare support is commonly seen as relating to financial income support and tax concessions, it also includes many policies and programs beyond this. For example, universal services for education and health—and targeted support for housing, employment, disability, ageing and aged care (among others)—are critical to the wellbeing of an individual and their family.

Indigenous Australians can access the same welfare support as all Australians. In addition, some welfare support targets Indigenous Australians, including the State owned and managed Indigenous housing program (SOMIH), and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flexible aged care program.

Examples of the use of welfare support and services among Indigenous Australians include:

  • At 30 June 2018, 35,619 Indigenous households were living in public housing, another 13,817 in SOMIH, and 6,423 in mainstream community housing. See Indigenous housing.
  • Among Indigenous Australians aged 50 and over, about 20,200 received basic aged care support services in the community through the Commonwealth Home Support Programme during 2017–18. See Aged care for Indigenous Australians.
  • In 2017–18, nearly 16,000 Indigenous Australians received disability support services provided under the National Disability Agreement. See Disability support for Indigenous Australians.
  • 45% of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over received an income support payment in June 2018. See Indigenous income and finance.

Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage

The substantial difference in almost all measures of health and wellbeing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has become known as ‘the Gap’.

In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to the Closing the Gap strategy. This national strategy aims to reduce Indigenous disadvantage in health, education and employment. It has targets, several of which are explored in Australia’s welfare snapshots.

According to the 2019 Closing the Gap report (PM&C 2019), of the 7 current targets, 2 are on track—early childhood education and Year 12 or equivalent attainment. See Indigenous education and skills for more information on targets related to education and Indigenous employment for more information on the employment target.

See also the Prime Minister’s annual report to Parliament on progress in Closing the Gap.

Closing the Gap targets

  • Halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under 5 (aged 0–4) by 2018.
  • Ninety-five per cent of all Indigenous four-year olds are enrolled in early childhood education by 2025.
  • Close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance by 2018.
  • Halve the gap for Indigenous children in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018.
  • Halve the gap for Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 in Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020.
  • Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018.
  • Close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2031.

Closing the Gap refresh

Of the 7 current COAG targets, 4 expired in 2018. COAG has committed to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians to refresh the Closing the Gap agenda (PM&C 2018a). A proposed refreshed framework and draft targets were released in a COAG statement in December 2018, to be used as a basis for further discussion with Indigenous Australians and communities (PM&C 2018b).

Following the December 2018 COAG meeting, a Partnership agreement on Closing the Gap 2019–2029 was developed (COAG 2019). This document expresses the agreed arrangements for the formal partnership between COAG and Indigenous Australians (represented by a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled peak bodies and organisations) in the design, implementation and monitoring of the Closing the Gap framework.

More information on the welfare and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians is reported elsewhere in Australia’s welfare snapshots. This includes an overview of these topics for Indigenous Australians:

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on this topic, see Indigenous Australians

For more information on the health and welfare of Indigenous Australians, see:

For more information on the Stolen Generations, see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations and descendants: numbers, demographic characteristics and selected outcomes.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2016a. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 22 October 2018.

ABS 2016b. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15. ABS cat. no. 4720.55.002. Findings based on Expanded Confidentialised Unit Record File analysis, Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Microdata: Census of Population and Housing, 2016, TableBuilder. ABS cat. no. 2037.0.30.001. Canberra: ABS. Findings based on AIHW analysis of ABS TableBuilder data. Canberra: ABS.

AHMAC (Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council) 2017. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2017 report. Canberra: AHMAC. Viewed 16 July 2019.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2017. Australia's welfare 2017. Australia's welfare no. 13. Cat. no. AUS 214. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 23 October 2018.

AIHW 2018a. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework (HPF) report. Cat. no. IHW 194. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 5 December 2018.  

AIHW 2018b. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations and descendants: numbers, demographic characteristics and selected outcomes. Cat. no. IHW 195. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 26 October 2018.  

AIHW 2019. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: a focus report on housing and homelessness. Cat. no. HOU 301. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 8 April 2019.  

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2019. Closing the Gap Partnership Agreement, viewed 17 April 2019.  

HREOC (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) 1997. Bringing them home. Sydney: Spinney.

Pascoe B 2012. The little red yellow black book: an introduction to Indigenous Australia. 3rd edition. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2018a. Closing the Gap refresh. A joint initiative of the Council of Australian Governments. Canberra: PM&C. Viewed 18 October 2018.

PM&C 2018b. Draft targets. Viewed 24 December 2018.  

PM&C 2019. Closing the Gap report 2019. Canberra: PM&C. Viewed 20 February 2019.  

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2018. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage 2016. Key indicators 2016. Canberra: Productivity Commission. Viewed 4 March 2019.

Taylor J, Edwards J, Champion S, Cheers S, Chong A, Cummins R et al. 2012. Towards a conceptual understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and community functioning. Community Development Journal 47:94 –110. doi:10.1093/cdj/bsq068.