Analysing institutional systems and using data and technology to identify mechanisms of disadvantage

Social disadvantage is a complex problem, generated and maintained across the life course and over generations through a combination of forces including social, economic and political institutions, as well as variations in human capabilities and individual circumstances. In the Disadvantage Systems program we focus on the systemic features of social disadvantage, including how institutions such as the welfare state, education systems, labour markets and families contribute to social disadvantage. Some of these institutions have been purposefully designed to support individuals, and in the case of the welfare state, to alleviate some of the financial effects of social disadvantage. But the outcomes are not always equal or as anticipated. This is particularly the case for those experiencing multiple forms of social disadvantage, who for reasons outside their control may not be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by education or welfare systems. It is these groups, the deep and persistently disadvantaged, that require the most innovative solutions to improve their circumstances.

The Disadvantage Systems program also focuses on the data systems required to adequately understand pathways into and out of social disadvantage. Development of innovative solutions requires both strong data to enable a clear understanding of the determinants and correlates of social disadvantage, but also data that enables good evaluation of the outcomes of innovations and trial solutions. Such data are particularly important if we are to move beyond explanations that focus on individuals to understand the systemic forces shaping social disadvantage.


Improving individual’s lives requires not just shaping how people interact with systems to improve outcomes, but reshaping social institutions to provide equal access to opportunities

– Program Leader Mark Western



Featured Publications

What is the association between poverty and child mental disorders? This cross-nodal Life Course Centre study addresses an important knowledge gap by examining the relationship between poverty and child mental disorders, including the influence of primary carer mental health. The study, co-authored by researchers from The University of Queensland and The University of Western Australia, extends previous research by differentiating by disorders, age group and gender. It finds the greatest risk of mental disorders when living in poverty was among 12–17 year-old males, and was particularly strong for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. By disorder type, poverty was most strongly related to Conduct Disorder. The research highlights the importance of paying attention to parental and child mental health, and the child’s developmental stage and gender when assessing the needs of families living in poverty.

Johnson, S. E., Lawrence, D., Perales, F., Baxter, J., & Zubrick, S. R. (2018) Poverty, parental mental health and child/ adolescent mental disorders: Findings from a national Australian survey. Child Indicators Research. DOI:10.1007/s12187-018-9564-1

Why do children growing up in some areas do better than those growing up in others? When and why neighbourhoods matter to children is the focus of a Life Course Centre Working Paper authored by Nathan Deutscher. The paper examines children who move neighbourhoods to see whether their outcomes at age 24 mirror the children they left behind or the children they joined. It finds that place is most influential in the teenage years, and each year a teenager spends in a destination moves their expected outcomes 4 per cent closer to those in that area. Place matters because where you grow up is often where you end up working, and it also influences who you grow up with.

Deutscher, N. (2018) Place, jobs, peers and the teenage years: Exposure effects and intergenerational mobility. Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2018-07.

What impact do extracurricular activities have on socioeconomic outcomes later in life? Children from more advantaged families are more likely to participate in extracurricular out-of-school activities such as sport, music lessons or debating. The impact of this participation gap is addressed by a Life Course Centre Working Paper co-authored by Dr Martin O’Flaherty and student Elizabeth Baldwin. Despite the fact that extracurricular participation rates are lower among disadvantaged youth, the authors find little compelling evidence that this participation gap significantly contributes to differences in life outcomes. Though extracurricular participation may positively affect grades, the study finds inconsistent evidence of its effect on high school and university graduation and labour market outcomes.

Baldwin, E. and O’Flaherty, M. (2018) Enriching the Rich? A Review of Extracurricular Activities, Socioeconomic Status and Adolescent Achievement. Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2018-17.


Newly Funded Projects

Interventions to increase perseverance

Project lead: Juliana Goncalves
CIs: Erte Xiao and Elif Incekara-Hafalir

This project will investigate interventions to increase perseverance in challenging but achievable tasks among socioeconomically disadvantaged adolescents. The project will be a RCT proof-of-concept that will inform a future intervention at scale. Drawing on the growth mindset concept and non-binding voluntary commitments, this project will test the effectiveness of interventions aimed at increasing educational outcomes positively through developing perseverance. This project will involve collaboration with the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET).

Pilot parent engagement

Project lead: Jenny Povey
CIs: Linda-Dianne Willis, Julie Hodges, Annemaree Carroll, Emma Antrobus, Janeen Baxter, and Alexandra Gramotev

The aim of this trial intervention is to conduct a pilot on the effectiveness of a parent engagement toolkit and training course for school staff from socially disadvantaged schools. The parent engagement toolkit and training course builds on previous research, and is aiming to improve schools’ parent engagement culture and the support parents receive to engage in their child’s learning.

Find out more:
This video from the Queensland Department of Education highlights previous Life Course Centre research on parent engagement, which provides the foundation for this new pilot intervention. You can watch it here.