Exploring the capacity of families, schools, labour markets, and communities, to build and support human capabilities

Socioeconomic disadvantage is a multi-faceted concept reflecting not only people’s lack of economic resources, but also their social exclusion, missing political voice and limited aspirations. Constrained social mobility imposes costs on society. A lack of upward social mobility at the bottom of the distribution means that many people’s talents are squandered, undermining productivity and economic growth. At the same time, a lack of social mobility at the top of the distribution “may translate into persistent rents for a few at the expense of many, due to unequal access to educational, economic or financial opportunities” also resulting in inefficiencies.

Ultimately, any reduction in entrenched disadvantage in Australia must come from reducing the persistence in socioeconomic position and increasing the opportunities for social mobility. For this reason, the research in the Life Course Centre’s Program on Human Capabilities has adopted a broad perspective in its approach to understanding and tackling the challenges posed by social and economic disadvantage. Educational opportunities, chronic illness, mental health, housing insecurity, parenting, family structure, risky behaviour, food security, domestic violence, gender attitudes, parental employment and child care are all under investigation as contributors to and consequences of limited social mobility.



Disadvantage can persist within communities – and across generations – whenever there is a lack of social and economic opportunities for vulnerable people and their families.

– Program Leader Deborah Cobb-Clark




Research Highlights

Risk taking, depression and life events.  Risk has been at the centre of a number of studies undertaken by our researchers. This includes examining the relationship between depression and risk taking, which finds those at risk of a depressive episode are more willing to take risks with their health, including smoking, poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, than those not at risk. While the analysis is not causal, it does identify behavioural tendencies that may be helpful in screening for depression. Separate research has investigated the relationship between life events and risk, and finds that changes in financial circumstances, parenthood and family loss predict changes in risk preferences. Our research has also looked at the role of peer observation in adolescent risk taking, and examined the reciprocal relationship between depressive symptoms and employment status.

Cobb-Clark, D. A., Dahmann, S. C., & Kettlewell, N. (2019). Depression, risk preferences and risk-taking behavior. Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2019-06.

Kettlewell, N. (2019). Risk preference dynamics around life events. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 162: 66–84.

Tymula, A. (2019). An experimental study of adolescent behavior under peer observation: Adolescents are more impatient and inconsistent, not more risk taking, when observed by peers. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 166: 735–750.

Bubonya, M., Cobb-Clark, D. A., & Ribar, D. C. (2019). The reciprocal relationship between depressive symptoms and employment status. Economics & Human Biology, 35: 96–106.


Defining the developmental circumstances of early childhood. Literacy provides a pathway out of poverty, yet it is vulnerable to the risks it seeks to mitigate. Our researchers continue to progress a body of work investigating how risks cluster across different domains of childhood development. This research explores the circumstances that produce stark inequalities in reading achievement in Australian children across six years of schooling. It identifies four distinct risk profiles: developmentally enabled (62 per cent of children); sociodemographic (25 per cent); child development (11 per cent); and sociodemographic and child development together (2 per cent). While developmentally enabled children achieve the expected rate of growth, children with sociodemographic, child development or double disadvantage profiles start behind their peers and lose ground over time. This highlights the complex contexts of educational disadvantage and the need for coordinated multi-agency interventions.

Taylor, C. L., Zubrick, S. R., Christensen, D. (2019). Multiple risk exposures for reading achievement in childhood and adolescence. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 73: 427–434.


The intergenerational benefits of higher levels of self-control. Higher levels of self-control can deliver broad benefits for individuals, their offspring, and society and should be a target for intervention policies, particularly for children. This is a key finding from our research on self-control (the ability to override impulses, resist temptation, and as a result achieve long-term goals). The richness of the data, including a well-established measure of self-control, allows the authors to produce evidence on: the determinants of adult self-control; the role of self-control in predicting key life outcomes, and the intergenerational implications of self-control. It finds that a higher degree of self-control is associated with better health, educational, labour market, financial and well-being outcomes. Parents’ self-control is also linked to reduced behavioural problems in children, making it a target for strategic intervention.

Cobb-Clark, D.A., Dahmann, S.C., Kamhöfer, D.A., & Schildberg-Hörisch, H. (2019). Self-control: Determinants, life outcomes and intergenerational implications. Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2019-17.


Our research on second children featured in Newsweek For many parents, the decision to have a second child is made with the expectation that two cannot be more work than one. However, Life Course Centre research shows this logic is flawed as second children increase time pressure and worsen parents’ mental health. This paper examining the impact on parents of a second child attracted widespread international media attention, featuring in 19 news outlets including Newsweek USA. The study investigated the effects of first and second births on time pressure and mental health, and how these vary with time since birth and parental responsibilities. The authors find that children have a stronger effect on mothers’ than fathers’ experiences of time pressure. These differences are not moderated by changes in parental responsibilities or work time following births. The increased time pressure associated with second births explains mothers’ worse mental health.

Ruppanner, L., Perales, F., and Baxter, J. (2018) Harried and Unhealthy? Parenthood, Time Pressure and Mental Health. Journal of Marriage and Family. DOI: 10.1111./jomf.12531


Published in the National Academy of Sciences of the USA This paper exploring the effects of experiencing the death of a sibling on children’s development was published in the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, which is ranked in the top one per cent of scientific journals worldwide. Little is known about the development of children who experience the death of a sibling, but this is a key issue given children’s vulnerability, the malleability of early childhood skills, and their impact on future adult outcomes. By analysing a longitudinal dataset, this paper finds large initial effects on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes that decline over time. Effects are larger if the surviving child is older and less if the deceased child was disabled or an infant. Auxiliary results show that parental investments in the emotional support of surviving children decline following the death of their child.

Fletcher, J., Vidal-Fernandez, M., and Wolfe, B. (2018) Dynamic and heterogeneous effects of sibling death on children’s outcomes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115(1): 115–120.


Paper on parents’ gender-role shifts highly cited in 2018 This paper examining the patterns of gender-attitude shifts that accompany parenthood was in the top two per cent most cited in its field in 2018. The findings show men’s and women’s gender-role attitudes become more traditional when they become parents, are more pronounced among men, parents of daughters and, most of all, male parents of daughters. This may be problematic if girls are raised in environments where parents are less likely to invest in their talents, and track them into gender-typical educational pathways. In this scenario, the comparatively higher rates of gender-role traditionalisation observed for parents of firstborn girls would result in their daughters encountering obstacles that limit their life chances not only outside but also within the family home, even if their parents are well intentioned. This may constitute an important factor hampering progress toward gender equality in Australia.

Perales, F., Jarallah, Y., and Baxter, J. (2018) Men’s and women’s gender-role attitudes across the transition to parenthood; Accounting for child’s gender. Social Forces. 97(1): 251-276.


Newly Funded Projects

The Walk of Life program

Project lead: Emma Antrobus and Mark Cartner

The Walk of Life Program is an approach designed to be used within schools in partnership with police to provide a cost effective means of targeting and reengaging youth who are at risk of entering the young justice system and/or dropping out of school. The program incorporates principles of Bush Adventure therapy and identified risk and protective factors for youth deviance, aiming to improve student outcomes in learning and behaviour. This project seeks to evaluate the Walk of Life Program as well as develop a sustainable model for expansion.

Effects of Prosocial Incentives

Project lead: Azhar Potia
CIs: Tony Beatton, Karen Thorpe, Ryan Menner (PI Uew Dulleck)

This project introduces a novel intervention aimed at improving Indigenous school attendance and engagement using prosocial incentives. These incentives encourage individuals to invest optimum effort in return for a reward they know can benefit someone else via charitable contribution. This project will seek to establish the preference of Indigenous students towards prosocial concepts such as ‘community helping community’ and ‘paying in forward’. This project involves collaboration with community service provider, Former Origin Greats (FOGS) who have successfully implemented a similar intervention.

Find out more:
This video from The University of Queensland Institute for Social Science Research takes a closer look at this prosocial incentive project and wider behavioural economics, experimental and quasi-experimental research methodologies. You can watch it here.