Family Relationships Quarterly No. 17

AFRC Newsletter No. 17 – September 2010

Snapshots of Indigenous families: Indicators of the socio-economic resources of mothers and Indigenous cultural connectedness

by Robyn Parker, Catherine Caruana and Lixia Qu

Statistics about Indigenous Australians and their families are often presented as stand-alone demographic descriptions and interpreted in the context of non-Indigenous family life. This article presents key demographic data on Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers, derived from the 2006 Australian Census.1 The data describe the family and relationship status of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous mothers, as well as their education levels, income and labour force status, which provides some indication of the life situations and particular disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians. However, these data offer a limited perspective on the lives of Indigenous mothers and their children. To place these data in the wider context of Indigenous culture and society we have included data from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS; Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2009b), and focus on findings relating to cultural identification, and social networks and support.2

Family and relationship status

At the broad family level, Indigenous mothers were much more likely to be in a sole-parent family (47%) than non-Indigenous mothers (19%). The couple family was by far the more predominant family form for non-Indigenous mothers (81%). As Table 1 shows, those Indigenous mothers who were in a relationship were more likely than non-Indigenous mothers to be cohabiting rather than legally married (42% vs 19%).

Pathway to sole motherhood

The pathway to sole motherhood is vastly different for Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous mothers. According to Table 2, 70% of Indigenous mothers have never been married, compared to 35% of non-Indigenous mothers. Marital breakdown led to sole motherhood for just under a quarter (23%) of Indigenous mothers but over half (57%) of non-Indigenous mothers. Similar proportions of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers are parenting alone due to the death or absence of their spouse.

Table 1. Family and relationship status of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers (a)
    Indigenous mothers (%) Non-Indigenous mothers (%)
Family type
Couple families 53.4 80.6
Sole mothers 46.6 19.4
Couple mothers
Married (b) 57.8 88.1
Cohabiting 42.2 11.9

Notes: (a) Indigenous mothers include mothers who were self-identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. Cases where status as a mother was not stated were excluded. Dependent children included children aged under 15 years, and full-time students aged 15-24 years.
(b) "Married" refers to a registered marriage. Partners in traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander marriages are coded as if they are in a registered marriage.

Table 2. Former marital status of Indigenous and non-Indigenous sole mothers
    Indigenous mothers (%) Non-Indigenous mothers (%)
Never married 69.9 34.7
Separated/divorced 22.7 56.7
Widowed 4.7 4.9
Married 2.8 3.8

Historical trends in fertility rates of Indigenous mothers

The total fertility rate (TFR) represents the average number of babies that a woman could expect to bear during her reproductive lifetime, assuming current age-specific fertility rates apply. From the mid-1990s, the TFR for Indigenous women rose slowly from a record low of 1.97 in 1996, to 2.40 babies per woman in 2007. The most recent TFR for Indigenous women was 2.52 (ABS, 2009a). Compared to the rate of 5.8 babies per Indigenous woman in the early 1960s, this figure is quite low. It is greater, however, than the TFR of 1.97 for all women in Australia (ABS, 2009a).

Age of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers

The high fertility rate for Indigenous women is largely accounted for by their high fertility rates at younger ages. In 2008, women under 30 years of age accounted for 70% of the total fertility rate for Indigenous women, compared to 46% of the total fertility rate for all women in Australia (ABS, 2009a). Table 3 shows that, overall, Indigenous mothers tended to be younger than non-Indigenous mothers, with more Indigenous mothers (15%) aged under 25 years, compared to non-Indigenous mothers (4%). Indigenous mothers were also less likely to be in the older age group of 45 years and over (16% vs 26%).

Table 3. Age distribution of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers
   Indigenous mothers (%) Non-Indigenous mothers (%)
< 25 years 15.3 3.5
25-34 years 35.3 25.7
35-44 years 33.7 44.6
45 years and over 15.7 26.2

The age of Indigenous mothers is consistent with the age distribution of Indigenous people generally, which differs significantly to that of the non-Indigenous population. In 2008, almost half of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population were under 20 years of age, while only 3% were aged 65 years or over, compared with 13% of the non-Indigenous population (ABS, 2009b).

This population imbalance has implications for the assistance available to Indigenous parents in the raising of children. Even taking into account the cultural and kinship obligations, the data illustrate the heavy child care burden for the relatively small number of elders available (Milroy, 2008).

Education, income and labour force status

Indigenous mothers are far more likely to have 11 or fewer years of formal education, with just over 60% having 11 or fewer years of formal education compared to 31% of non-Indigenous mothers (Table 4). Conversely, nearly five times as many non-Indigenous mothers have a degree or higher qualification (24% vs 5%). The gap is somewhat less noticeable for education at the Year 12 or post-school (certificate or diploma) levels.

Table 4. Highest education attainment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers(a)
   Indigenous mothers (%) Non-Indigenous mothers (%)
Degree or higher 5.4 23.9
Other post-school qualification 21.3 27.3
No post-school qualification
- Year 12
12.2 17.4
No post-school qualification
- Year 11 or below
61.1 31.4

Note: (a) Excludes persons where level of education was inadequately described for highest educational attainment.

Another significant disparity can be seen in rates of family income for Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers (see Table 5). Three times as many Indigenous mothers (30%) have a weekly family income of less than $500 compared to non-Indigenous mothers (10%). Conversely, 25% of non-Indigenous mothers have weekly family incomes of more than $2,000, whereas only 7% of Indigenous mothers are in this income bracket. Over a third (38%) of Indigenous mothers have access to a weekly family income of between $500 and $999, with one-quarter having weekly incomes in the range of $1,000 to $1,999. This trend is reversed for non-Indigenous mothers: one quarter of them are in the $500-999 bracket, while 41% have a family income of $1,000 to $1,999 per week.

Table 5. Family income (weekly gross) of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers(a)
   Indigenous mothers (%) Non-Indigenous mothers (%)
Less than $500 30.2 9.9
$500-999 38.0 24.3
$1000-1999 24.9 41.0
$2000 + 6.8 24.8

Note: (a) Excludes persons whose family income was partially stated for family income.

Table 6 shows the labour force status of Indigenous mothers at the last Census (Table 6). Fewer than half (41%) of Indigenous mothers were employed, compared to nearly two-thirds (65%) of non-Indigenous mothers. Almost twice as many Indigenous as non-Indigenous mothers were unemployed (7% vs 4%), and more Indigenous mothers reported not being in the labour force at all (52% vs 32%).

Table 6. Labour force status of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers(a)
   Indigenous mothers (%) Non-Indigenous mothers (%)
Employed 41.2 64.6
Unemployed 6.9 3.5
Not in labour force 51.9 32.0
Number of mothers 57,811 2,308,171

Note: (a) Exclude persons where labour force status not stated.

Indigenous lifestyle, cultural identification and involvement

Data from surveys of Indigenous people such as the 2008 NATSISS - which includes questions relating to language, cultural identification and participation in cultural events - can provide a more contextualised and holistic picture of Indigenous health and social and emotional wellbeing. These data have the potential to provide insight into the protective factors afforded by culture and connectedness, and to counteract to some degree the negative picture of Indigenous disadvantage so often presented in general population surveys.

The 2008 NATSISS report indicated a strong connection to culture among Indigenous people, particularly those living in remote locations.3 The percentage of Indigenous people aged 15 years and over who identified with a clan, tribal or language group increased from 54% in 2002 to 62% in 2008. Close to half of all Indigenous children aged 4-14 years identified with a clan, tribal or language group, with rates of identification considerably higher for children in remote areas than in the major cities (71% and 40% respectively). The degree to which Indigenous people participate in cultural practices (men's and women's "business") and festivals or carnivals involving arts, craft, music or dance, provides some indication of levels of cultural attachment. In 2008, 73% of Indigenous children aged 4-14 years, and 63% of those aged 15 years and over, had been involved in cultural events, ceremonies or organisations in the 12 months prior to interview.

Indigenous elders, as custodians of their people's history, culture and language, are important members of their communities and play a vital role in the transfer of knowledge to younger generations. While the demographic data illustrate the effects of reduced life expectancy in the Indigenous population, resulting in a smaller pool of elders, findings from the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey indicate the continuing relevance of this role. Overall, almost one-third (31%) of Indigenous children aged 4-14 spent at least one day a week with an Indigenous leader or elder. However, this figure was close to half (48%) for children living in remote areas (ABS, 2009b).

Although it is acknowledged that Indigenous children are at elevated risk of significant emotional and behavioural difficulties, two characteristics of Indigenous lifestyle - living in areas of extreme isolation and living in high household occupancy4 - were identified by the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey as protective factors against these difficulties (Zubrick et al., 2005a, 2005b). Indigenous children in remote areas were reported as being one fifth as likely to be at risk than Indigenous children in metropolitan Perth, and those in high household occupancy were at half the risk of these difficulties.


Demographic data relating to Aboriginal mothers provide an indication of the socio-economic resources available to Indigenous children. However, this is only part of the picture of the lived experience of Indigenous children. By including data from surveys that measure a broader concept of Indigenous wellbeing, one that has meaning for Indigenous people, a more complete picture emerges that also highlights the strengths inherent in Indigenous communities.


  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009a). Births, Australia, 2008 (Cat. No. 3301.0). Canberra: ABS. </> 
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009b). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2008. Canberra: ABS. Retrieved from <>.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). The health and welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2008). Canberra: ABS. < Features12008?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4704.0&issue=2008&num=&view=>
  • Milroy, H. (2008). Children are our future: Understanding the needs of Aboriginal children and their families. In A. S. Williams, & V. Cowling (Eds.), Infants of parents with mental illness (pp. 121-140). Bowen Hills, Qld: Australian Academic Press.
  • Zubrick, S. R., Silburn, S. R., Lawrence, D. M., Mitrou, F. G., Dalby, R. B., Blair, E. M. et al. (2005a). Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: Vol. 2. Summary booklet: The social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people (PDF 1.8 MB). Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. 
  • Zubrick, S. R., Silburn, S. R., Lawrence, D. M., Mitrou, F. G., Dalby, R. B., Blair, E. M. et al. (2005b). Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: Vol. 4. Summary booklet: Strengthening the Capacity of Aboriginal Children, Families and Communities (PDF 2.3 MB). Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. < SummaryBooklet.pdf>

Robyn Parker and Catherine Caruana are Senior Research Officers with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse. Lixia Qu is a Research Fellow and Demographic Trends Analyst at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.


1 All data presented in the tables in this paper are derived from 2006 TableBuilder of the 2006 Census.

2 The 2008 NATSISS, the third social survey of Indigenous people conducted by the ABS, provides information on demographic, social, environmental and economic indicators, including: personal and household characteristics, geography, education, employment, income, housing, health and disability, language and cultural activities, social networks and support, financial stress, transport and personal safety.

3 The distribution of the Indigenous population varies across the country. In 2008, the majority (68%) of Indigenous people lived outside major cities, with nearly half of those (44%) living in regional areas and a quarter (24%) living in remote (or very remote) areas. New South Wales (30%) and Queensland (28%) had the highest proportions of Indigenous residents, with another quarter living in either Western Australia (13%) or the Northern Territory (12%).

4 Based on number of bedrooms and number of people in the household (ABS, 2008)