Children, Australia: A Social Report 1999

ABS Report, Catalogue 4119.0 ISBN 0 642 25791 4

In this report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, children are defined as persons aged 0 to 17 years. The vast majority of children live with at least one of their parents, but the report also contains information on those aged 15-17 years who have started to live independently. The report draws on data from a variety of sources, including the 1996 Census of Population and Housing, 1997 Family Characteristics Survey, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and the National Health and Medical Research Council, sample surveys and administrative data.


In June 1997 there were 4.7 million children in Australia. They made up a declining proportion of the population except in the Northern Territory. The proportion was similar across the states (25%), except NT 31%. The Indigenous population was younger than the total Australian population with 46% aged less than 18 years. Overall 16% of children lived in rural areas compared with 26% of Indigenous children. Only 7% of children were born overseas compared with 27% of the adult population. Of overseas born children the main languages spoken, other than English, were Cantonese, Vietnamese and Mandarin. Most migrant children came from New Zealand, United Kingdom, and Ireland, Hong Kong and Macau, USA and Indonesia.

Social Environment

According to the 1996 Census, 94% of children lived with at least one of their parents. Changes between 1986 and 1996 include the following:
• the number of children increased by 143,000 or 3%,
• the number of children in one- parent families increased by almost 50%,
• the proportion of children in one- parent families increased from 11% to 16%.
• the proportion in couple families declined from 83% to 78%.

Nine out of ten children from one- parent families lived with their mother. Lone mothers are less likely than lone fathers to be in paid employment and therefore have lower incomes than lone fathers. They also tend to have higher proportions of younger children in their families than lone fathers.

In 1997 50,000 children were affected by the divorce of their parents. Data are not available about those affected by de facto separations.

9% of total Australian families had other relatives and non-relatives living in the household, among Indigenous families this was 29%. Overall, 21% of children lived with one natural parent and had another parent living elsewhere, the proportion varying with the age of the child as shown in the figure on p.16. Visiting arrangements varied with the age of the child, with children 12 years of age or older more likely to visit only once per year or never, compared with the under 12’s.

In 1996 the average family had 1.9 children, Indigenous families 2.2, rural families 2.1 and blended families 2.9. Since 1986 the median (middle) age of mothers has risen from 35 to 37 years, and fathers 38 to 39 years.

The number of children being adopted in Australia has decreased. In 1971-2 there were 9,798 adoptions. In 1996-7 there were 263 adoptions of Australian born children, and 269 adoptions of overseas born children by non-relatives.

In 1996 half of the 1.5 million children less than 12 years used formal or informal child care. Of these children half were in care for more than 10 hours per week. The main reason stated was so both parents could be in paid employment.

Between 1995 and 1996, there were 29,800 cases substantiated of child abuse and neglect, these being equally divided between boys and girls. Natural and adoptive parents were responsible for 71% of the cases, and step-parents 17%. Indigenous children, who represented 3% of the child population, were over represented as victims of abuse and neglect, accounted for 8% of the cases.

Indigenous children were detained in corrective institutions at a rate approximately 20 times that of the non-indigenous population.

Economic Environment

• 54% of the dependent children in couple families had both parents employed,
• in one- parent families 44% of the parents were employed.
Since 1983, for mothers in lone parent families the full-time employment rate has remained the same (20%). The part-time rate has doubled from 12% to 24%.

Many families with dependent children receive cash assistance from the government. For 12% of couple and 65% of one-parent families this accounts for at least half of the family gross income.

In 1997 there were 597,500 families with a natural parent living outside of the household. Only 42% of these families received any cash support from that parent and 31% received less than $100 per month per child.

Children in one-parent families were over-represented among lower income families as were Indigenous children. 84% of Indigenous one-parent families relied on government payments as their main source of income.

Physical Environment

Overall 88% of families with children lived in separate houses. 69% of families owned or were purchasing their homes and 28% renting.

85% of Indigenous families lived in separate houses with 26.2% of families owning or purchasing, and 69% renting.

In 1997 17% of all children had moved house in the past 12 months. It is estimated that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 homeless children in Australia. This includes children who live on the streets, in refuges, illegally in abandoned buildings, those who move between friends and relatives and those who are homeless because their families are homeless.


In 1997, accidents, poisoning and violence were the main cause of death in all age groups of children more than one year, accounting for 50%. The type of accident changed with the age of the child: drowning for the 1-4 years, and motor vehicle accidents for those more than 5 years. For children one month to one year the main cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome ( SIDS).

For girls between 12 and 14, 13% of all deaths were caused by suicide or self-inflicted injury and 12% for 15-17 year old girls. For boys, 6% of deaths among 12-14 year olds and 19% for 15-17 year olds were the result of suicide.

The Indigenous infant (one month to one year) mortality rate was 2 or 3 times the overall Australian rate, increasing to 5.5 times in the Northern Territory. For Indigenous children 1-4 years the death rate was 4.5 times the national rate.

Most Australian children were healthy. The most common illnesses were colds and asthma. Asthma was the most common long-term ailment.


Overall one third of children aged 3-5 years attended pre-school in 1996. 74% of primary students attended government schools decreasing to 66% in secondary schools. Catholic schools were the largest component of the non-government sector accounting for about 20% of all students. Post-compulsory education participation rates had increased steadily since the 1980’s, and were higher for girls than for boys. However, there was considerable variation. For example at 17 years of age, 37% of males and 42% of females in the Northern Territory were still in education, compared with 68% of males and 80% of females in Victoria.

Hazel Hughes

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