Indigenous socio-economic profile

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been socioeconomically disadvantaged compared to all other Australians. Key socio-economic indicators are health, education, housing and employment.


Hot Tip: Statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics website is a key resource for finding statistical information. The main sources are the Census of Population and Housing collected every five years; and the two Indigenous surveys – the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS). These surveys are conducted every six years, and are three years apart from each other. In addition, other organisations collect data about clients in their day to day work.

Results from the 2012–13 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS), the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (NATSINPAS) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Measurements Survey (NATSIHMS) will be released progressively throughout 2013–14.

More up-to-date statistics become available with each new survey so check the ABS website for the latest information.

Other sources of statistics


In the area of health, Indigenous life expectancy in 2010-2012 was 69.1 years for Indigenous men (compared to 78.7 years for all other Australian men) and 73.7 years for Indigenous women (compared to 83.2 years for all other Australian women). (Life Tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2010-2012). More specifically, ear and eye infections occur at higher rates in Indigenous communities. They contribute to poor concentration in young people, affecting their schooling, and, if untreated, can lead to long-term loss of hearing or sight.

Twice as many infants are born in the low birth weight range to Indigenous mothers than to non-Indigenous mothers. Two to three times as many Indigenous children die before their first birthday than other Australian babies. This is caused by the poor health of Indigenous mothers due to poor nutrition, smoking, overcrowding and poor housing.

Four per cent of the Indigenous population has a disability that requires assistance on a constant basis; the rate for the rest of the Australian population is 2%. Indigenous people also suffer higher rates of mental illness; with hospitalisation for mental illness five times as high for Indigenous men and three times as high for Indigenous women.

Overall, the Indigenous community in Australia drinks less than the Australian population but a higher level of excessive drinking occurs among the group that does drink. Indigenous people are more likely to abstain from drinking alcohol, especially in remote communities. Fifty-seven per cent of the Indigenous community is obese and the proportion of smokers in the Indigenous community is twice that of the broader Australian community.

There have been significant improvements in Indigenous health over the last decade. These are attributable to:

  • the success of Indigenous community controlled health services in engaging local Indigenous communities with health services
  • targeted health campaigns
  • an increase in the number of Indigenous nurses and doctors
  • improved teaching in Australian Medical Schools, ensuring that graduates understand the distinct health needs of Indigenous patients and also understand their cultural needs to best treat them. The Australian Indigenous Doctor’s Association (AIDA) has led much of this work in the profession.


Case Study: Australian Indigenous Doctor’s Association

The Australian Indigenous Doctor’s Association (AIDA) was established as a professional body to represent the approximately 175 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors and 226 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical students in Australia. Dr Helen Milroy became the first Indigenous person to graduate with a degree in medicine in 1983; and in 2006, Dr Kelvin Kong was the first Indigenous person to become a surgeon. Numbers of Indigenous people becoming doctors has steadily increased but Indigenous people make up 0.02% of doctors, while they are 3% of the population.

The association brings together Indigenous doctors and medical students but it is also a leading advocate on issues relating to Indigenous health. It has also transformed medical practice in Australia by working with the Deans of Medical faculties across the country to ensure that all graduates are equipped with an understanding of the specific health issues facing Indigenous Australians and skilled in dealing with Indigenous clients in a culturally appropriate way. This engagement that AIDA has had with the teaching of medicine will have a lasting, positive legacy on Indigenous health in the longer term.


Housing plays a part in health determinants. Overcrowding is a problem in Indigenous communities and contributes to the high rate of infectious diseases. The average number of Aboriginal people living in a house is 3.4, compared to 2.7 for Australian households generally.

This increases in the Northern Territory where there are 5.3 Aboriginal people per household and 61% of houses that are part of the community housing sector are overcrowded. There are 6200 houses in Queensland and 5200 in New South Wales that house Indigenous families. Sixteen per cent of the houses that have Indigenous children in them are classed as being of poor quality. Houses in the most remote communities are in need of repair and replacement. The 3400 Aboriginal people from remote communities live in dwellings that aren’t even houses but sheds or shacks.

Only 34% of Indigenous people own their own homes compared with 67% of non-Indigenous people. 59% of Indigenous people rent; 7% of the Indigenous population is itinerant or homeless.

Housing is expensive in remote communities but housing is often not built to accommodate the large extended Indigenous families that want to live together.


Indigenous children are less likely to attend school, finish school and go to university than other Australian children. Several factors have been identified as contributing to the failure to engage Indigenous children with their schooling. These include:

  • a curriculum that doesn’t engage them
  • health problems, particularly ear infections
  • lack of educational infrastructure at schools
  • overcrowding at home
  • poor quality of teaching in some locations
  • teachers having low expectations of Indigenous students
  • an unfriendly or unwelcoming culture at the school.

Only 64% of Indigenous children of pre-school age are enrolled. By the time Indigenous children start Year 1 at school, 60% of them are behind in their literacy and numeracy skills. About 88% of Indigenous five-year-olds attend an educational institution compared to 95% for non-Indigenous children of the same age. (Source: Population Characteristics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Australia, 2006)

In the Northern Territory, only 80% of school-aged children are enrolled in school. This has not been helped by the under-investment by the territory government who fund schools on attendance rather than enrolment. Only 24% of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory have access to a school that goes up to Year 12. While many more Indigenous students are staying on to Year 12 than a decade ago, Indigenous completion rates are still lower than for the rest of the Australian population. Twenty-two per cent of Indigenous students complete Year 12 compared to 47% of the rest of the population.

Indigenous students make up 1.3% of university enrolments, even though they make up 3% of the population. However, Indigenous people are much more likely to pursue vocational training than to go to university. Completion of apprenticeships has more than doubled in a decade.

These lower levels of education have implications for the ability of Indigenous people to participate in the workforce. In some rural and remote communities, there are not enough jobs for everyone. In the Indigenous population, 8% are unemployed, 46% are employed (compared to 62% in the Australian community) and 46% are not in the workforce (compared to 35% of the Australian community). The population ‘not in the workforce’ are people who are not looking for work because they are stay at home parents, elderly or not well enough to work.

But when Indigenous people enter the workforce, they are more likely to work in low-skilled jobs and twice as likely to work part-time. Only 6% of Indigenous people are self-employed, compared to 17% in the rest of the Australian population. However, according to the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, the top 500 Indigenous corporations turn over more than $1.18 billion annually, hold assets worth more than $1.22 billion and employ over 9150 people.

Latest figures show that educational qualifications greatly improve access to full time employment. The unemployment rate for Indigenous people with Year 12, or Certificate level II or above was half the rate as for those without the qualification. (Source: Educational qualifications paying dividends for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ employment, ABS Media release, November 2013).