Aboriginal well-being improves, but the gap remains too wide

By Paddy Manning

November 21, 2014

Alongside bad news on incarceration rates and self-harm, there is a good news story in this week’s Productivity Commission report into into indigenous disadvantage.

Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators Report For 2014 compiles thousands of statistical indicators of well-being, from health to education and employment, and was prepared for the Council of Australian Governments. Among the key findings was this:

“The proportion of adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders whose main income was from employment increased from 32% in 2002 to 41% in 2012-13, with a corresponding decrease in the proportion on income support. Increasing proportions of employed people were employed in full time and managerial positions.”

Drill into chapters 4 and 9 of the report, and you find that this trend is reflected across a range of economic indicators: incomes have increased, home ownership has increased, the proportion of young indigenous people in full-time work or study after leaving school has increased.

This is not to say that indigenous disadvantage has disappeared; unemployment among (particularly younger) ATSI people, for example, has risen to 21% in the past five years and is five times as high as unemployment for the non-indigenous population.

Lawrence McDonald, head of the Productivity Commission secretariat, told The Mandarin‘s sister title Crikey that “even where there are improvements, in most cases there are still significant gaps [with the non-indigenous population]. In no instance could you say ‘our work here is done and needs no further attention’.”

For example, the commission’s preferred measure of employment-to-population ratio for ATSI people from 15-64 years rose from 38% in 1994 to a peak at 54% in 2008 and dropped back to 48% in 2012-13, but the comparable rate in the non-indigenous community is 77%.

Another graph contrasts the main sources of personal cash income for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians over the past decade and shows that the proportion of ATSI people whose main source of income was work rose from 32% to 41% — compared to 62% for non-indigenous people — while reliance on pensions and allowances fell from 50% to 46%.

Again, the proportion of indigenous people living in a house that someone in the household either owns or is paying off has risen substantially, from 22% in 1994 to 30% in 2012-13, but it’s still a fair bit lower than the comparable rate in the non-indigenous community of 72%

From 2002 to 2008, the median real gross weekly household income for indigenous households rose from $385 to $492, but fell to $465 by 2012-13 — which is just over half the comparable median weekly income of $869 for non-indigenous households. The report found the gap has not changed significantly since 2002.

When everyone’s getting richer, McDonald says, “it’s hard to portray that as a bad thing”. But the truth is that while most measures of indigenous wealth have increased in absolute terms, “the gaps haven’t changed very much”.

Gaps are also opening up between urban and regional or remote indigenous communities on many economic measures (although the gap moves the opposite way on some other indicators, like mental health or cultural indicators like indigenous language).

“For many of the indicators you do see that the gaps become greater and the outcomes become poorer as you get into more remote areas, but indigenous people experience disadvantage relative to their neighbours no matter where they live,” said McDonald.

The opposite trend can be true for the non-indigenous population: remote areas, for example, often have very high incomes, generally due to mining.

Given many of the indigenous wealth measures peaked around 2008, the challenge now is to consolidate the gains made over the last decade. PC commissioner Patricia Scott told Crikey: “There’s been a sort of slowing in progress in recent years, so you’ve got strong rises between 2004 and 2008 as the economy was zipping along — as you know the tide rises all boats — but as things start to slow a little, those with a more tenuous connection with the labor market find it hard.”

This article was originally published at Crikey

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