What is welfare? In the broadest sense, welfare refers to the wellbeing of individuals, families and the community. The terms welfare and wellbeing are often used interchangeably. Positive wellbeing is associated with being comfortable, happy or healthy (Oxford University Press 2020).

Some people see welfare as primarily government-funded income support payments and welfare services. However, support and services in many areas of life aid welfare and are critical to the wellbeing of an individual and their family. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2015) states that ‘well-being is multidimensional, covering aspects of life ranging from civic engagement to housing, from household income to work-life-balance, and from skills to health status.’

A person’s wellbeing is the result of risk, protective and contextual factors. It can be influenced by social and economic factors at the individual, family and community level, and each person’s unique circumstances and experiences contributes to their wellbeing equation. Wellbeing can also influence, and be influenced by, a person’s interaction with services and formal and informal supports.

Data about welfare and wellbeing is necessary to understand how different factors interact and affect a person’s life. These data can help provide a strong evidence base enabling better policies and decision making for improved outcomes for Australians. For example, understanding how individuals engage with and navigate welfare services can help those responsible for planning, implementing, delivering and evaluating policies and programs. See ‘Chapter 1, The importance of welfare data’ in Australia’s welfare 2021: data insights.

Determinants of wellbeing—or risk and protective factors—can positively or negatively affect a person’s wellbeing and influence their need for welfare services and support. On an individual level, these factors include a person’s circumstances, attitudes, behaviours and how they respond to life events. On a broader scale, determinants affecting wellbeing include education, employment and skills, secure housing, social support networks and health status. A person’s economic wellbeing (i.e. income, consumption and wealth), for example, is a key determinant of their overall wellbeing as it influences greatly their ability to meet basic needs and maintain an acceptable standard of living.

In Australia, research has shown that social relationships and connectedness are positively associated with subjective wellbeing, as measured by self-reported life satisfaction. See ‘Chapter 2, Social determinants of subjective wellbeing’ in Australia’s welfare 2021: data insights.

This research showed that, controlling for other factors:

  • people report higher life satisfaction if they are married or in de facto relationships, compared with being divorced, separated, widowed, or single/never married; and
  • greater frequency of social contact and membership of community or sporting clubs has positive impacts on subjective wellbeing.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has also highlighted the importance of our social relationships and connectedness. At the start of COVID-19, the restrictions to reduce the spread of the disease meant less social interactions for many people. In April 2020, a survey conducted by the Australian National University found that 46% of respondents reported feeling lonely at least some of the time. This declined to 36% in May 2020, when most restrictions had been lifted across Australia, but increased again to 45% in August during the second wave of infections and return to lockdown conditions for some parts of the country (Biddle, 2020).

Continuing restrictions in place as result of the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in Australia are likely to continue to impact people’s feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

Health, welfare and wellbeing are strongly interrelated. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity’ (WHO 1948), recognising that a person’s health status is linked to their wellbeing. For more information, see Health and welfare links.

Wellbeing measurement

Certain elements of wellbeing can be particularly difficult to measure and interpret (for example, happiness, confidence, fair treatment). Many other factors that shape wellbeing can be measured. As such, a range of measures (or indicators) need to be used to provide insights on, and track changes in, wellbeing more broadly and at the national level. Some frequently measured outcomes include a person’s housing status, labour force participation, education, perception of safety in the community, disposable income and community engagement.

A number of frameworks for measuring welfare and wellbeing exist and include the Australian Capital Territory Wellbeing Framework (ACT Government, 2020) and, internationally, New Zealand Treasury’s Living Standards Framework (New Zealand Treasury, 2021), Stats NZ’s Indicators Aotearoa framework (Stats NZ, 2021), and the OECD’s wellbeing framework and biennial How’s Life report (OECD 2021).

The AIHW reports on Australia’s progress in several core welfare and wellbeing domains using a set of indicators. Collectively, these indicators summarise the performance of Australia’s welfare system, track individual and household determinants of the need for welfare support and provide insights into the nation’s wellbeing status more broadly (see Australia’s welfare indicators).

The wellbeing of Australians has been affected in different ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. The broad range of potential impacts at the individual and community level span areas that include: health (direct and indirect effects such as on mental health), income and finance (changes to income and income support), employment and work (labour market changes), education and skills (impact on pre-schooling, schooling and adult education), housing (housing stress and homelessness), justice and safety (for example family violence and child protection), and social support (for example social isolation and aged care). For a detailed examination into these effects, see ‘Chapter 3 The impact of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of Australians’ in Australia’s welfare 2021: data insights.

Welfare services and support

A person’s wellbeing can be bolstered by the help they receive in time of need. Support can come from sources including informal assistance from family, friends and the community, as well as formal assistance from government and non-government organisations. This section focuses primarily on formal services and support. See also Informal carers.

The level of formal welfare assistance a person receives depends on their life stage, level of disadvantage, and the interactions among these factors. Welfare services and supports are designed to assist people from all backgrounds, including new parents needing time off work or help with the costs of raising children, to people leaving their home due to a crisis such as domestic violence, or those living with permanent disabilities who require supports to live an ordinary life (DSS 2018a). A person’s need for assistance can be dynamic. People may access welfare services and support temporarily when circumstances and need arise (for instance, emergency temporary accommodation for bushfire affected communities), or long term (for instance, the Disability Pension). When an event triggers change in a person’s life, it is often the point at which that person contacts government support services (Qu et al. 2012).

Welfare assistance in Australia is a complex network of government payments, welfare-related tax concessions and welfare services. However, welfare services and support extend beyond policy and program areas that improve wellbeing; universal services like education and health, interact with and influence a person’s wellbeing and their need or demand for welfare assistance.

Government payments

Government payments, such as income support payments, family assistance payments and supplementary payments, aim to support people at different points in their life and those who cannot, or cannot fully, support themselves. They do so via social security payments and assistance (DSS 2018c). Payments can be available short or long term, or for a transitional period, and the eligibility requirements and amounts received vary. Payments are available to eligible people at different stages of life.

Age Pension is an example of a major income support payment that helps eligible older people with living costs. As at 31 December 2020, around 2.6 million people aged 65 and over received the Age Pension, equating to over 3 in 5 (62%) of the population aged 65 and over. See Age Pension.

Unemployment payments, such as the JobSeeker payment, provide income support to unemployed people who are preparing or looking for a job. It is provided as the main income support payment for unemployed people aged over 22 and over but under Age Pension age. See JobKeeper and employment services and Unemployment and parenting income support payments.

For more information on government payments, see the Australia’s welfare Employment and income snapshots.

Tax concessions

Tax exemptions, deductions, offsets and concessional rates are available to support a person financially for welfare purposes. For example, a taxpayer may be entitled to claim a tax offset if a close family member receiving a disability support pension is a dependent (ATO 2019). Governments at all levels, and some non-government organisations, also issue concession and health care cards to eligible Australians for certain discounts (DHS 2018a).

Welfare services

Welfare services are provided to people and families of widely differing ages and social and economic circumstances. Services aim to encourage participation and independence and can help enhance a person’s wellbeing (DSS 2018b). As well as helping people and families directly, services may also indirectly help by, for example, developing community networks and infrastructure.

Services respond to need across a person’s life. The need and demand for welfare services are mediated by informal supports and the availability of other services at community or individual levels. For example, programs that help people with disability to maintain their housing tenancy can lead to more secure long-term housing arrangements and greater independence. This lessens the demand for informal and other formal support services.

Examples of welfare services include:

  • employment services to help people secure and maintain stable employment
  • disability services to help people with disability and their carers participate in society
  • aged care services to help elderly people with their living arrangements
  • child protection services to assist vulnerable children
  • youth justice services to support young people to rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community
  • family support services to support with family, domestic and sexual violence circumstances
  • homelessness services to provide people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness with support and accommodation
  • social housing to provide people with low incomes and housing need with affordable and secure housing.

Who is responsible for welfare services and support?

While the responsibility for funding and managing welfare services and support mainly lies with the Australian Government or state and territory governments, arrangements for delivering welfare services are complex.

In many cases, non-government organisations (NGOs) – profit or not-for-profit – deliver services. These NGOs are predominantly ‘approved providers’, meaning they have been formally authorised, contracted and/or funded by government to provide particular services. Further, service delivery can be shared between NGOs and local governments or state and territory governments.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on income support and welfare services, see the following topics at Australia’s welfare snapshots:

  • Housing
  • Employment and income
  • Social support
  • Justice and safety
  • Indicators of Australia’s welfare

Also visit:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2019. Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings. Viewed 15 June 2021.

ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Government 2021. ACT Wellbeing Framework. Canberra: Australian Capital Territory Wellbeing Framework. Viewed 6 May 2021.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2017. Australia’s welfare 2017. Australia’s welfare series no. 13. AUS 214. Canberra: AIHW.

Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M & Sollis K 2020. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (August 2020) – Divergence within Australia. Viewed 15 June 2020.

ATO (Australian Taxation Office) 2019. Invalid and invalid carer tax offset. Canberra: ATO. Viewed 1 September 2021.

DHS (Department of Human Services) 2018a. Concession and health care cards. Canberra: DHS. Viewed 21 November 2018.

DHS 2018b. Family Tax Benefit: Who can get it. Canberra: DHS. Viewed 3 March 2019.

DSS (Department of Social Services) 2018a. About the department. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 3 December 2018.

DSS 2018b. Corporate plan 2018–19. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 1 September 2021

DSS 2018c. Department of Social Services Annual Report 2017–18. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 21 November 2018.

New Zealand Treasury 2018. Measuring wellbeing: the LSF dashboard. Wellington: New Zealand Treasury. Viewed 12 March 2019.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2015. How’s life? 2015: measuring well-being. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD 2021. Measuring well-being and progress: Well-being research. Paris: OECD. Viewed 15 April 2020.

Oxford University Press 2019. Oxford living dictionaries: well-being. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Viewed 15 April 2021.

Qu L, Baxter J, Weston R, Moloney L, & Hayes A 2012. Family-related life events: insights from two Australian longitudinal studies. Research Report No. 22. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Stats New Zealand 2021. Wellbeing data for New Zealanders. Viewed 7 May 2021.

WHO (World Health Organization) 1946. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19–22 June 1946. New York: WHO.