Culture, Housing, Remoteness and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Development: Evidence From the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children

Published19 June 2017

Emerging frameworks of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing emphasise the importance of cultural factors in promoting wellbeing, as well as mainstream indicators of socio-economic success, such as employment, education, income, service access and housing circumstances. As a broad generalisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents who live in more remote areas score higher on cultural markers of wellbeing, notably access to traditional lands, language use and participation in traditional or cultural activities. However, poorer availability of services and inferior standards of housing in more remote areas are frequently cited as factors hindering outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, largely attributable to the greater cost of delivering services, housing and other infrastructure to smaller and more isolated communities.

Policy discourse at the Commonwealth and WA government levels has called into question the very viability of remote Aboriginal communities. In this context, a recent study by BCEC Principal Research Fellow Associate Professor Mike Dockery investigated the links between some of these factors and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children using data from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children. The research was undertaken in Mike’s role as Project Leader of the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP)’s Population Mobility and Labour Markets Project, and published as a CRC-REP working paper.

The study looked at children’s health, social-emotional adjustment, scores on standardised maths and reading tests and school attendance. By analysing parents’ survey responses, three key elements of parental attitudes and practices were identified with respect to passing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture when their child is young: Connection to Country, Connection to Kin and Traditional Knowledge. The Connection to Country and Kin factors are interpreted as reflecting parental aspirations to promote the child’s sense of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity. Measures of these cultural attitudes and practices were related to the child’s outcomes later in life.

A key finding from the analysis is that where parents place a high priority on fostering a strong sense of identification with their Aboriginality in their children – pride, respect and knowledge of their family networks and family history – then those children display better outcomes. Parents fostering a strong kinship connection is found to contribute to positive child development across the domains investigated. This includes fewer social and emotional difficulties as assessed by the children’s teachers.

Indigenous cultural dancing

Desire to pass on traditional knowledge in early childhood is associated with better results on the maths and reading test scores, but there is some evidence it is associated with lower school attendance. The findings support arguments by others that remote schools do not appropriately cater to their children’s learning needs (see, for example, Guenther et al. 2015).

Greater remoteness is associated with inferior aspects of housing, notably more crowding and a high incidence of government and community housing, but there is little evidence that this has a substantial impact on child outcomes. There is some evidence that residential instability impedes social and emotional adjustment and leads to lower school attendance, though children living in more remote areas are in fact observed to experience fewer changes of address.

The housing-related characteristic found to have the strongest associations with child outcomes is tenure: inferior outcomes are observed across the board for children living in government or community housing as opposed to those who rent privately or own their home.

After controlling for these and other factors, living in more remote areas is found to be associated with inferior child health as assessed by the parent, and lower maths and reading achievement scores and school attendance, but there is no evidence of lower social and emotional wellbeing. Parental education, having at least one parent in work and adequate family financial resources are found to be associated with positive child development.

An important aspect of this study is to advance the empirical literature relating culture to wellbeing. A limited number of previous studies have found health and other benefits associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural engagement and sense of identity. A weakness of that existing empirical literature is the challenge of ‘reverse causality’: that better health and other outcomes may enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to engage in their culture, rather than cultural engagement having a causal effect on outcomes. Utilising the longitudinal nature of the data, the research design relates parental cultural attitudes and practices to the child’s outcomes later in life, thereby eliminating the possibility of (the child’s) outcomes ‘causing’ greater cultural identity or engagement.

The data confirms that living in remote locations facilitates greater attachment to traditional lands and the passing on of traditional knowledge for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It also provides examples of the compromise in the quality of housing and service provision, in this case evidence of less culturally appropriate schooling. Findings from the Population Mobility and Labour Markets Project and previous research show that temporary mobility often facilitates coexistence in ‘both worlds’ for people living in remote communities, such as combining cultural obligations with access to mainstream services and the maintenance of kinship networks – visiting family is one of the main drivers of temporary mobility among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The evidence of the importance of identity associated with connection to kin in promoting positive child development provides a further strong justification for such mobility.

Read the full study here