Starting with Statistics to Transform Disadvantage - Speech




I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of these lands, and pay respects to all First Nations people present.

Thank you Claerwen for the warm introduction and to Aunty Violet Sheridan for your Welcome to Country. I also acknowledge the many researchers and policy advocates here and the work you all do to create a fairer Australia.

Thank you to UnitingCare for inviting me here today to celebrate the 2024 Child Social Exclusion Index Report. The report is a collaboration between University of Canberra researchers and UnitingCare, which has worked for over 100 years to support vulnerable Australians and advocate for social justice.

Tackling disadvantage is at the heart of our Government’s vision for Australia (Albanese, 2022), and one of the most important challenges of our time.

It is a topic I have been focused on since my university days. The title of my 2004 PhD thesis was ‘Essays in Poverty and Inequality’, a set of issues that I expanded on in my 2013 book: ‘Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia’. 

Tackling inequality and exclusion must start with robust data and statistics. That is what this report does. It extends the concept of poverty to measure social and material disadvantage, and highlights the geographical areas facing high levels of child social exclusion. I congratulate you on the report, and your contribution to a long and rich tradition in the social sciences.

It is a history which says we must start with robust statistics to transform disadvantage. It shows that data-driven indices and maps can create change significant social change. It is this tradition that I am going to focus on today, and which I hope inspires you, as you consider the findings of the report.

Booth’s Poverty Maps: A Global Influence

In the late 19th century, Charles Booth undertook one of the best-known attempts to systematically measure the number of people in poverty and map their distribution.

His Inquiry [into the Life and Labour of the People in London] saw house-to-house surveys take place across London for over almost 20 years, from 1886 to 1903. Participants were asked diverse questions about their living and working conditions; the impacts of migration; the organisation of trade and industry; religious life; women’s employment; and leisure activities (London School of Economics, 2016).

One of the most highly publicised findings was that over 30 per cent of London’s population was poor (Himmelfarb, 1984). Booth articulated a ‘line of poverty’ and showed the distribution of people living above and below it on a series of maps. 

The empirical insights, data-laden tables and social cartography in Booth’s reports changed the game. For the first time, an evidence base was established to translate ‘the ungraspable problem of poverty into a measurable social issue’. This was a starting point for significant social change (Vaughan, 2018).

The impact was profound, changing the public debate on poverty. This new social science evidence challenged the general view that poverty was an individual failing and could only be countered by personal change (Glennerster et al, 2004). Instead, it became clear that individuals and families faced a range of economy-wide risks. Poverty could not simply be insured against through private or collective means (Glennerster et al, 2004).

The social science methods used by Booth reverberated across England and around the world, influencing social mapping projects from York to Chicago and Philadelphia (Vaughn, 2018).

Booth’s work and influence eventually led to government interventions such as national insurance and old age pensions (Vaughan, 2018).

Poverty and Exclusion Data in Australia

Booth’s thinking soon came to Australian shores. In 1891 The Melbourne Leader reported that the figures and classifications from Booth’s study in London could be applied in other major cities, including Melbourne and Sydney. It was indeed picked up in 1902 by Labour Commissioners in New South Wales who used Booth’s classification to sort unemployed people into six classes (Macintyre, 1985).

We should by no means look back at Booth’s categorisations through rose-tinted glasses. They were ‘described and even defined as much in moral as in economic terms’ (Himmelfarb, 1984).

However, it was not until Ronald Henderson’s major 1966 study of poverty in Melbourne that Australia saw ‘the first systematic attempt at measuring poverty’ (Melbourne Institute, 2024). Henderson went on to chair the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty in 1972, which established an Australian poverty line, and investigated its multidimensional nature.

The report being launched today – the 2024 Child Social Exclusion Index – builds on this rich history. It extends the concept of poverty to measure social and material disadvantage and understand the risk of social exclusion, specifically for Australian children. The findings show where child social exclusion is highly prevalent, providing an important contribution and starting point for developing solutions.

Our Government shares the same commitment to quality statistics and analysis to shift the dial on disadvantage. We have invested $16.4 million over 4 years in the Australian Bureau of Statistics to lead the Life Course Data Initiative. This four-year pilot program is part of the  Targeting Entrenched Disadvantage package, which was announced in the 2023-24 Budget. The package has a strong focus on intergenerational disadvantage and improving child and family wellbeing.

The Life Course Data Initiative will create an integrated data asset, based on the Person Level Integrated Data Asset (PLIDA) and will create data insights to inform long-term policy responses to address entrenched place-based disadvantage. The Initiative will also enable community access to data. The is expected to help researchers and policymakers understand how communities experience disadvantage. This will help guide local decision making and better direct funding.

Our Government has also established the Australian Centre for Evaluation in the Treasury to develop our understanding of what interventions work, and what can work better. It hopes to improve the volume, quality and impact of evaluations across the Australian Public Service.

To drive higher quality evaluations, the Australian Centre for Evaluation is partnering with departments and agencies to conduct flagship evaluations on agreed priorities. The first partnership is with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, using randomised trials to evaluate different features of online employment services. The Centre also supports agencies to build their capabilities and prepare their own evaluations, multiplying the volume and quality of evaluations APS-wide.


Reports like the one being launched this morning are essential. The insights help to provide granularity and an empirical evidence base for change. This will help to develop solutions to tackle child social exclusion.

Lessons from the history of social surveys and cartography show that empirical studies like yours can create the foundations for social change. They can pinpoint need and show where we our efforts should be targeted to make a positive difference. 

Tackling child social exclusion and disadvantage is a challenge that we face together. A shared understanding of its nature is a vital foundation for collaboration. Thank you for your contribution.


Albanese, as cited in Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (2022). ‘Read incoming prime minister Anthony Albanese's full speech after Labor wins federal election’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 22 May 2022. Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2024].

Glennerster, H, Hills, J, Piachaud, D and Webb, J (2004). One hundred years of poverty and policy, p27-28. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Himmelfarb, G. (1984) The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, p530. New York: Vintage Books.

London School of Economics (2016). Charles Booth’s London: Poverty Maps and Police Notebooks – What was the Inquiry?. Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2024].

Macintyre, S (1985). Winners and losers: the pursuit of social justice in Australian history. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.

The Melbourne Leader (1891). ‘Review’, Saturday 26 September 1891, page 38. The Melbourne Leader. Melbourne, Victoria. Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2024].

Vaughan, L. (2018). ‘Charles Booth and the mapping of poverty’. In Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography (pp. 61–92). UCL Press.

Vaughan, L. (2018). ‘Poverty mapping after Charles Booth’. In Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography (pp. 93–128). UCL Press.

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  • Toby Halligan
    published this page in What's New 2024-03-27 11:01:51 +1100

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.