New census data highlights income disparity in the Kimberley

Jane MurphyBroome Advertiser
Broome Circle’s financial counsellor Veronica Johnson says the income disparity revealed in the 2021 census could be a product of several factors including intergenerational welfare dependency.
Camera IconBroome Circle’s financial counsellor Veronica Johnson says the income disparity revealed in the 2021 census could be a product of several factors including intergenerational welfare dependency. Credit: Broome Advertiser/Jane Murphy

Kimberley leaders say the income disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents revealed in the 2021 census is disappointing but not surprising because of the prevalence of intergenerational welfare dependency and the current rates of school attendance.

Data collected in the 2016 census showed Indigenous people in the Kimberley earned on average $331 a week, while the average non-Indigenous residents earned $1088.

Five years on, these numbers have barely changed, with the median personal income for Indigenous residents rising by only $30.

The increase is more significant for non-Indigenous persons who now earn over $200 more than they did in 2016.

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This places the average weekly income in the Kimberley at $361 for Indigenous residents and $1292 for non-Indigenous residents, a substantial difference when considering the average rent in the Kimberley in $200.

According to John Guenther, a research leader for education and training with Bachelor Institute in the Northern Territory, there are a multitude of factors leading the low income in Indigenous residents, one being the lower rates of school attendance.

“In terms of what causes low income for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley and elsewhere in remote parts of Australia, educational attainment and achievement are only part of the story,” he said.

“The other factors are intertwined with systemic racism, cultural responsibilities and obligations, entrenched intergenerational welfare dependency, limited understanding of what work actually means, among other things including English language literacy.”

Census statistics on education in the Kimberley show of those the 307 residents who do not have a primary or secondary education, 251 of them are Indigenous.

Furthermore, there are only 240 Indigenous residents with tertiary level education out of more than a thousand.

As for the other factors, Mr Guenther is not the only voice pointing to intergenerational welfare dependency as having a major impact on income.

Broome Circle’s financial counsellor Veronica Johnson said the prevalence of intergenerational welfare dependency among Aboriginal Australians prevents many from seeking and obtaining work.

“When you’re talking about $361, you’re talking about Centrelink payments. If you grow up and all your parents are on Centrelink, then you think that’s normal,” the counsellor said.

“We’re looking at intergenerational welfare dependency. It’s so widespread and it’s such a big conversation.”

Indigenous family systems in the Kimberley often command the sharing of money among relatives, meaning any income that is made could be spread thin over a large group of people.

“The underpinning thing is that every Indigenous person that tries to get up and go to work, they come home and all the money’s gone, because they have to share with the family,” she said. “It’s not really an incentive to go to work.”

This open door policy among Indigenous families further exacerbates socioeconomic status compared with non-Indigenous families, the census revealing 859 households of which one or more Indigenous resident resides are in need of extra bedrooms.

This is four times more than the non-Indigenous population.

The lower income means it is often impossible to reside in dwellings to accommodate numbers.

“They can’t turn away their family, you know,” she said. “It’s the overcrowding — there’s not enough room for everyone. And there are resources such as showers, the extra cost of electricity.”

Ms Johnson said for racial income disparity to change, the intergenerational welfare dependency must be first solved.

“They use to have really good initiatives where money would be provided to communities for projects they could design and create a business plan for,” she said.

The Community Development Employment Program was a government remote employment and community development service which supplied thousands of jobs to remote Australia jobseekers but funding community-based projects.

“It was a really exciting time for them, where they looked forward to work.”

As part of the 2021-2022 Federal Budget, the Government announced a new program which would replace CDP, set to start in 2023.

The new project would be part of the national New Employment Service Model — rolled out in the latter half of 2022 — and will be developed in partnership with Indigenous communities.

For Ms Johnson, communication between communities and decision-makers is at the forefront of change.

“It all goes back to conversations with the community about what they want to do — what is actually wanted and needed by the community,” she said.

“Project on country are really important. They give people an incentive to up and work for their community. They enjoy their job.

“You know, there’s just so many barriers for people. I really feel that intergenerational welfare dependency is something that needs to be broken because there’s not much of a future otherwise.”

More employment data will be revealed along with other information in the release of the next census 2021 instalment in October.

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