34-year study tracking inequality in Australia hands down report

A study launched in 1990 tracking 167 babies recently handed down its final report on inequality in Australia.
inequality Australia report

A study on inequality in Australia has concluded after 34 years.

The Life Chances study on inequality in Australia launched in 1990 when it began tracking 167 babies. Since then, it has monitored the impact of factors like income, ethnic background and education on the lives of its participants, now in their 30s.

Its final report was handed down this week. One participant told the study: “No one starts off at the same place, but they’re still forced to do the same race.”

Here’s what the study found.

Inequality in Australia report

The 167 participants of the Life Chances study were recruited from two inner Melbourne suburbs.

Further, the group came from a range of ethnic, educational and financial backgrounds.

The subjects were interviewed or surveyed every one to two years. For the first 11 years of the study, subjects’ parents were surveyed instead.

At the beginning of the study, around a quarter of participants’ families were in public housing, a quarter were renting, and half were homeowners.

Life stages

Life Chances said it worked to understand how disadvantage impacted participants at different key life stages like infancy, school, post-school, work and family.

It also grouped participants into three income levels. It defined ‘low income’ families as living below the poverty line.

Families above the poverty line, but eligible for welfare (e.g. Centrelink), were classed as ‘medium income’.

‘Higher income’ meant families “above a point where other income would exclude” them from welfare payments.


Parents from “all income backgrounds” told the study they valued education.

When they were 15, participants were asked what was most important in their lives. A common trend among lower-income children was education.

However, one in four participants from low-income families left school early.

98% of children from higher-income families completed high school. This group was also more likely to attend uni, while those from lower-income families were more likely to attend TAFE.

Those from middle-income families were more likely to be working full-time by the age of 21.

Tuition fees, including additional costs like textbooks, were identified as a key barrier to education for participants from lower-income families.

A low level of education contributed to fewer employment opportunities.


Participants in the study turned 18 during the 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Many were looking for jobs during a time of high youth unemployment.

Unemployment was the most common among men from low-income families.

By the time they were 24, around 80% of participants were in paid jobs, however two in five of those participants were not working in their preferred industry.


Life Chances found that across different income levels, many participants considered support from their families as a “safety net” and “springboard” for opportunities.

Some participants from migrant families listed community services as an important form of support.

One said: “Even though story time at the library was in English, Mum thought it was very important to learn English and be with other kids your own age.”


Life Changes’ final report made several proposals to address inequality in Australia, including:

  • Better access to community support services for non-English speakers
  • Affordable early childhood education for low-income families
  • “Youth friendly” services and career guidance to support employment
  • Increased investment in public housing

Researchers said the study “reminds us of the uneven impacts of social, technological, economic and political changes.”

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