New questions in the 2006 population census: some initial findings.

Author:Hugo, Graeme

The 2006 Australian census covered several new topics. These include questions that enable the author to estimate the numbers and characteristics of persons with a profound or serious disability and their carers. Questions were also asked about the level of unpaid work. The study highlights the extent to which females engage in such work. A key finding is that women aged 35-44 bear a heavy unpaid workload, relative to males, despite a high rate of labour force participation. The article also reports the results of 2006 census questions on volunteering, on internet connections and numbers of children ever born.


Much demographic change is incremental rather than sudden and hence can creep up on policy makers. It is important therefore to regularly take a snapshot of the population and society through the census of population and housing to take stock of such change. However, in order to be able to detect and measure these changes the census must include the right questions which address not only contemporary but also emerging, social and population issues. If the census is to provide policy makers and society generally with timely, relevant and accurate information it needs to keep up, or even be ahead of, changes in Australian society. Accordingly the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) canvasses widely regarding the topics that should be incorporated in each census. At the 2006 census four topics were included which were not in the 2001 census questionnaire although one of the questions has been asked before and is currently in a cycle of being included in every second census. However there are three totally new topics that reflect emerging issues in Australian society of increasing significance. This paper discusses some of the initial results from each of the four questions.


The Australian population aged 65 years and over will double over the next 30 years but the numbers aged 75 and over will treble and those aged 85 plus will quadruple as is shown in Table 1. A recent paper (1) used the ABS Survey of Disability, Aging and Carers to project that the numbers of Australians requiring assistance will increase from 956,635 in 2003 to 1,215,407 in 2011, 1,713,732 in 2021 and 2,215,041 in 2031. (2) However, our understanding of the changing level and patterns of need for assistance in day-to-day activities remains limited. Accordingly it was decided to include a suite of questions regarding the need for assistance in the 2006 census and these questions are shown in Figure 1. The responses to questions 20, 21 and 22 have been used by the ABS to develop a Core Activity Need for Assistance variable to establish the number of people with a profound or severe disability who need assistance in day-to-day activity. People with a profound or severe disability are defined as needing help or assistance in one or more of the three core activity areas of self-care, mobility and communication because of a disability, long-term health condition (lasting six months or more), or old age. All told, some 821,649 Australians or 4.4 per cent of the total population indicated that they needed someone to help them and had a profound or severe disability. The non-response rate was high at 6.4 per cent however. As would be expected there is considerable variation with age. Figure 2 shows that for both females and males there is a regular increase in the percentage needing care after age 20 and a steepening after age 70. In the younger ages the rate is higher for males than females but there is a crossover at age 65 and, for the oldest groups, the need for assistance is greater among women. For males, eight per cent of 65 to 74 year olds have a severe disability compared with 8.3 per cent of women while for those aged 75 to 84 the proportions are 18.9 and 24.1 percent and those aged 85 and over 43.5 and 57.5 per cent. This seems to reflect the fact that most older men live in couple households and many may not report the care provided by their partner while a much greater proportion of older women live alone and do not have a partner to care for them. Overall, 4.1 per cent of Australian males have a profound disability and 4.8 per cent of women, reflecting the older age structure among women (ABS defines profound as including those indicating a profound or severe disability).




Much of the interest in the disability variable will be in analysis of differentials between different socioeconomic, geographical, ethnic and other subgroups. Some of the potential for such analyses is evident in Figure 3 that compares the age-specific incidence of disability for the Indigenous and total populations. The rates are higher for Indigenous men (4.9 per cent) than for all men but a little lower for Indigenous women (4.4 per cent compared with 4.8 per cent). However, it will be noted that the rates are higher for all age groups for Indigenous people reflecting their disadvantaged situation. Moreover, it seems that cultural factors may lead to significant underrepresenting of disability among the Indigenous population.

As Figure 1 indicates, a question was included in the census on persons providing unpaid assistance to a person with a disability. The ABS has used the responses to this question to develop an Unpaid Assistance to a Person with a Disability variable which records people who, in the two weeks prior to census night, spent time providing unpaid care, help or assistance to family members or others because of a disability, a long-term...

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