The tyrannies of distance and disadvantage

Factors related to children's development in regional and disadvantaged areas of Australia
Research Report No. 25 – November 2013

Executive summary

Families living in regional or rural areas of Australia can face challenges that may be less commonly experienced by families in major cities; for example, in accessing services and good-quality infrastructure. It is important to understand whether these different experiences and other differences in family life associated with living in regional areas have implications for children's development. Further, within geographically defined localities of Australia, some are more socio-economically disadvantaged than others. The level of socio-economic disadvantage in the local area in which children live is known to influence children's development, though it is not understood whether children living in disadvantaged major city areas have different experiences and outcomes compared to children living in disadvantaged regional areas.a

This report examines whether what children in regional areas experience is a "tyranny of distance" or a "tyranny of disadvantage". In other words, are the gaps in children's development in regional areas compared to children living in the major cities explained by their distance from the major cities (remoteness), or is it because many regional areas are disadvantaged compared to the cities? The analyses make use of data from the first three waves of Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) to report on differences in neighbourhood, family, social, educational and other contexts for children, and to relate those differences to how children are developing. The study includes children aged from 0-1 up to 8-9 years old, and therefore provides useful insights into issues of relevance to families with children in their early years.

The current study compares families and children living in different areas of Australia, first defined according to their remoteness (major cities, inner regional areas and outer regional areas), and then according to their level of disadvantage (defined using local area unemployment rates). While an important group, children from remote parts of Australia are not included in the current study, as they are not represented in sufficient numbers in LSAC to obtain robust statistical estimates. Throughout the report, comparisons are thus made across the following socio-geographic areas:

  • major city areas with low unemployment rates;
  • major city areas with high unemployment rates;
  • inner regional areas with low unemployment rates;
  • inner regional areas with high unemployment rates;
  • outer regional areas with low unemployment rates; and
  • outer regional areas with high unemployment rates.

The main question we sought to answer was how children's outcomes vary by geographic locality and by disadvantage. We examined two cognitive outcomes - receptive vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning - and two other outcomes - the risk of experiencing clinically significant emotional or behavioural problems and of being overweight.

Differences in local area characteristics, family demographics, parent wellbeing and parenting, social capital and access to services, and educational activities between geographic localities, or between disadvantaged and advantaged areas might be part of the explanation for any differences in child wellbeing that were observed, so we also provide information here on these characteristics for each of the six socio-geographic areas.

Contexts for child development

We focused on how the following contexts vary according to the remoteness and disadvantage of different areas across Australia:

  • family demographic and economic characteristics;
  • parent wellbeing and parenting style;
  • family social capital and access to services; and
  • children's educational activities.

The key findings from each context are discussed in more detail below. Together, there are a number of key differences in contexts that may be relevant to children's development according to geographic locality and level of disadvantage, which may be reflected in how children grow and develop. One of the important features of these factors is that many are amenable to change, and therefore could be the targets of policies and service delivery.

Family demographic and economic characteristics

Advantaged areas in major cities stood apart from the other areas examined when focusing on family demographic and economic characteristics. On many measures, the circumstances of these families differed from those in disadvantaged major city areas, as well as from those in inner and outer regional areas. Differences according to disadvantage were also apparent in inner and outer regional areas, although the advantage/disadvantage disparity was not as great as it was in major city areas. For example, the percentages of single parents, mothers with a university education and mothers born overseas were similar in both disadvantaged and advantaged regional areas, but rates were different in advantaged and disadvantaged areas in the major cities. The percentage of jobless families and those experiencing financial hardship were more similar in disadvantaged and advantaged regional areas than in advantaged and disadvantaged major city areas, where there was a greater discrepancy.

Parent wellbeing and parenting style

In terms of parent wellbeing and parenting style, there were fewer differences. There were no differences by geographic locality or level of disadvantage in terms of mental health and relationship hostility. Fathers had much higher rates of risky binge drinking in regional areas, particularly in outer regional areas, than in major city areas; but though these rates were high, they were consistent with other studies (e.g., Miller, Coomber, Staiger, Zinkiewicz, & Toumbourou, 2010). There were differences by locality and level of disadvantage for mothers and fathers being overweight. For mothers, a higher proportion was overweight in regional areas, as well as in disadvantaged areas (regardless of locality), with the highest percentage being those in disadvantaged outer regional areas. On the other hand, for fathers, the highest levels of being overweight were in inner regional areas. In outer regional areas, higher proportions of fathers were overweight in advantaged compared to disadvantaged areas. There was little difference in parenting styles of mothers and fathers between geographic localities or between disadvantaged and advantaged areas.

Family social capital and access to services

Some measures of social capital and service use for children did not vary according to areas of remoteness and disadvantage, but there were some protective factors for parent and child wellbeing that were higher in regional areas than in major cities, such as involvement in community organisations, sense of neighbourhood belonging and safety, and obtaining help from family and friends. Also, ratings of neighbourhood quality - including parents' perceptions of safety and parents' involvement in volunteer or community groups - were higher in advantaged areas than in disadvantaged areas.

Children's educational activities

Children's educational activities are likely to be shaped by parents' aspirations for their children's learning, and by their employment arrangements, which can mean parents have varying needs for child care. There were some differences in children's educational activities in the home, with fewer children living in disadvantaged areas having 30 or more children's books in the home and being read to daily than in advantaged areas. Children's television viewing was also marked by consistent differences between advantaged and disadvantaged areas for all ages, with children living in disadvantaged areas being more likely to watch a greater amount of television. Within major city areas, differences between disadvantaged and advantaged areas were most apparent; however, high levels of television viewing were similar in both advantaged and disadvantaged areas in inner and outer regional areas. Also, those children in disadvantaged areas of the major cities were less likely to be enrolled in outside-school-hours care, or to participate in other outside-school activities. There were no consistent differences in children's attendance at child care between geographic localities or between disadvantaged and advantaged areas, and rates of preschool attendance were consistently high across all socio-geographic areas.

Child outcomes

The key question of the report is the extent to which children's outcomes are shaped by a tyranny of distance (differences between geographic localities) or by a tyranny of disadvantage (differences between areas with higher compared to lower levels of unemployment). Findings from the current study provide the first systematic national information on a broad range of child outcomes, as well as a large number of other variables that are known to shape children's development, which could vary depending on geographic locality or level of disadvantage.

Is there a tyranny of distance or disadvantage? The answer to this question depends on the outcome examined. The evidence seems to suggest that there are enduring differences in child cognitive outcomes by whether children live in major city areas compared to regional areas, even after a broad range of factors are taken into account, indicating that there is a tyranny of distance for cognitive outcomes.

There was also a tyranny of disadvantage for child emotional or behavioural problems. The findings suggest that children living in disadvantaged areas experience greater emotional or behavioural problems, even when all other factors are taken into account. While there were differences by disadvantage between children's levels of cognitive and physical outcomes when not adjusting for other demographic characteristics, these differences could be partly or wholly explained by the demographic composition of families and aspects of the children's social context, including parenting and social capital.

A note of caution in the interpretation of findings from the statistical modelling is warranted, as the modelling precludes causal explanations, even though there was a rich set of variables included.

Study implications

Turning to the study implications, the authors ask what the role of location-based approaches is in the development of service delivery and policy. First, an important point should be made about having location-based services targeted at families living in disadvantaged areas. Even if there are no additional effects of disadvantaged areas over and above the demographic composition of families living in such areas, these types of policies should be considered, as they offer an effective means of planning and targeting services to disadvantaged families. Clearly, in instances where there are persistent differences between disadvantaged and advantaged areas even after a large number of other factors are taken into account - such as is the case with children's emotional or behavioural problems - then there is an additional reason and benefit to targeting services in areas of high unemployment.

In the case of geographic localities, a focus on enhancing the learning environments of children may be important, given that findings from this study also suggest that there were persistent differences in children's cognitive outcomes between the major cities and regional areas that were not explained by the rich set of variables that were included in the statistical models. Enhancing the early education experiences of children and improving the quality of primary school education, as well as getting parents more involved in children's education at home (such as through reading programs) may be important in addressing the "gap" between children's cognitive outcomes in the major cities and in regional areas.

To understand differences in children's outcomes between geographic localities, it is important to note that academic achievement and cognitive development are not the only predictors of positive development, and that on other factors - such as emotional or behavioural problems and overweight or obese - there were no differences between geographic localities once other factors were taken into account in the statistical models. Moreover, high levels of achievement may be important if children wish to attend university, but in many occupations, tertiary qualifications are not relevant. In other studies of rural areas, adolescents learned independence, leadership and social skills by interacting with their family through working on farms, engaging in extracurricular activities and community groups, and taking up leadership positions in these community groups (Elder & Conger, 2000). Many of these skills are transferable to jobs that may be more prevalent in regional areas.

It is important to be mindful that children's development occurs in different environmental contexts, and the development of policies and delivery of services need to be nuanced to cater to the different needs and strengths of children growing up in this "wide brown land".


a For the sake of clarity, the terms "geographic locality" or "locality" are used in this report to refer generically to the three areas defined by remoteness: major city, inner regional and outer regional. "Socio-geographic areas" is used to refer generically to the six areas defined by remoteness ´ disadvantage. "Regional areas" is used when referring to both the inner and outer regional areas (but not the major cities).