What is welfare? In the broadest sense, welfare refers to the wellbeing of individuals, families and the community. The terms welfare and wellbeing are often used interchangeably. Positive wellbeing is associated with being comfortable, happy or healthy (Oxford University Press 2019).

Some people see welfare as primarily income support payments and welfare services. However, support and services in many areas of life aid welfare and are critical to the wellbeing of an individual and their family. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2015) states that ‘well-being is multidimensional, covering aspects of life ranging from civic engagement to housing, from household income to work-life-balance, and from skills to health status.’

The conceptual framework for Australia’s welfare (Figure 1) shows that a person’s wellbeing is the interplay of many interrelated factors. This framework shows, at a high level, the complexity of welfare as a concept. It acknowledges the factors that play a part in wellbeing.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for Australia’s welfare

This is a figure showing that there are three factors that make up wellbeing. These factors are welfare services and supports, contextual factors and determinants of wellbeing. These factors affect a person’s overall wellbeing and are interrelated. A person’s wellbeing is, for example, housing quality and living conditions, housing status, employment status, safety and security, educational attainment, and health and functioning. Welfare services and supports are, for example, housing and homelessness services; child protection; disability services; employment services; income support payments; informal support provided by friends, family and community groups. Contextual factors are, for example, sociodemographic trends (such as immigration patterns and ageing), environmental factors, economic conditions and policy settings. Determinants of wellbeing are, for example, family functioning, social engagement, material resources, health status, support networks, employment and skills, secure housing, personal factors and behaviours.

Figure 1 shows that wellbeing, determinants of wellbeing, and services and supports provided to facilitate positive wellbeing are also shaped by contextual factors including social and economic forces, and government policies. The conceptual framework is not a comprehensive framework for measuring wellbeing. Selected frameworks for measuring welfare and wellbeing include AIHW’s Australia’s welfare indicators framework and, internationally, the OECD wellbeing framework (OECD 2019) and New Zealand Treasury’s Living Standards Framework (New Zealand Treasury 2018).

Data about welfare is necessary to understand how different factors interact (Figure 1) and affect a person’s life. These data provide a strong evidence base enabling better policies and decision making for improved outcomes for Australians. For example, understanding how individuals engage with and navigate welfare services can help those responsible for planning, implementing, delivering and evaluating policies and programs. See ‘Chapter 1 An overview of Australia’s welfare’ in Australia’s welfare 2019: data insights.

Determinants of wellbeing

Determinants of wellbeing—or risk and protective factors—can positively or negatively affect a person’s wellbeing and influence their need for welfare services and support. On an individual level, these factors include a person’s circumstances, attitudes, behaviours and how they respond to life events.

On a broader scale, determinants affecting wellbeing include education, employment and skills, secure housing, social support networks and health status. Health, welfare and wellbeing are strongly interrelated. The World Health Organization defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity’ (WHO 1948), recognising that a person’s health status is linked to their wellbeing. For more information, see Health and welfare links.

Family functioning is an example of a determinant that is both protective and a risk factor. Strong family functioning provides family members with a social support network and contributes directly to wellbeing outcomes. Poor family functioning, and subsequently the loss of this support (physical, emotional, financial and so on), may lead to a family member requiring welfare assistance, such as housing or income support.

Wellbeing measurement

A person’s wellbeing is the result of risk, protective and contextual factors and their interaction with services and formal and informal supports.

Wellbeing can be difficult to measure and report on (for example, happiness, confidence, fair treatment). Some frequently measured outcomes include a person’s housing status, labour force participation, education, perception of safety in the community, disposable income and civic engagement.

Some outcomes can also be determinants. An example is being employed in a job with the desired number of hours. This is a positive outcome, but it can also be a protective determinant since earning an income helps support a person’s needs, like secure housing, and working can provide social interaction and fulfilment. Conversely, people who work more or less hours than they would prefer report lower levels of life satisfaction and mental health than well-matched workers (see AIHW 2017:151–3).

Welfare services and support

A person’s wellbeing can be bolstered by the help they receive in time of need. Support can come from sources including informal assistance from family, friends and the community, as well as formal assistance from government and non-government organisations. While the conceptual framework for Australia’s welfare (Figure 1) acknowledges the role of formal and informal assistance, this section focuses primarily on formal services and support.

When an event triggers change in a person’s life, it is often the point at which that person contacts government support services (Qu et al. 2012). The level of formal welfare assistance a person receives depends on their life stage, level of disadvantage, and the interactions among these factors. Welfare services and supports are designed to assist people from all backgrounds, including new parents needing time off work or help with the costs of raising children, to people leaving their home due to a crisis such as domestic violence or loss of a home in a fire (DSS 2018a). A person’s need for assistance can be dynamic. People may access welfare services and support temporarily when circumstances and need arise, or long term.

Welfare assistance in Australia is a complex network of government payments, welfare-related tax concessions and welfare services. However, welfare services and support are not the only policy and program areas that improve wellbeing. Universal services such as education and health, interact with and influence a person’s wellbeing, and their need or demand for welfare assistance.

Government payments

Government payments, such as income support payments, family assistance payments and supplementary payments, aim to support people who cannot fully support themselves. They do so by providing sustainable social security payments and assistance (DSS 2018c). Payments can be available short or long term, or for a transitional period, and the eligibility requirements and amounts received vary. Payments are available to eligible people at different stages of life.

The Age Pension is an example of a major income support payment that helps eligible older people with living costs. It is the main source of income for almost two-thirds of Australians over retirement age. See Income support payments for older people.

Family assistance payments, such as the Family Tax Benefit, help support families with the direct or indirect costs of raising children. It may be provided to eligible parents, grandparent carers or non-parent carers (DHS 2018b). See Family assistance payments.

For more information on government payments, see the Australia’s welfare income and finance: government payments snapshots.

Tax concessions

Tax exemptions, deductions, offsets and concessional rates are available to support a person financially for welfare purposes. For example, a taxpayer may be entitled to claim a tax offset if a close family member receiving a disability support pension is a dependent (ATO 2018). Governments at all levels, and some private organisations, also issue concession and health care cards to eligible Australians for certain discounts (DHS 2018a).

Welfare services

Welfare services are provided to people and families of widely differing ages and social and economic circumstances. Services aim to encourage participation and independence and can help enhance a person’s wellbeing (DSS 2018b). As well as helping people and families directly, services may also indirectly help by, for example, developing community networks and infrastructure.

Services respond to need across a person’s life. The need and demand for welfare services are mediated by informal supports and the availability of other services at community or individual levels. For example, programs that help people with disability to maintain their housing tenancy can lead to more secure long-term housing arrangements and greater independence. This lessens the demand for informal and other formal support services.

Examples of welfare services include:

  • employment services to help people secure and maintain stable employment
  • disability services to help people with disability and their carers participate in society
  • aged care services to help elderly people with their living arrangements
  • child protection services to assist vulnerable children
  • youth justice services to support young people to rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community
  • family support services to support with family, domestic and sexual violence circumstances
  • homelessness services to provide people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness with support and accommodation
  • social housing to provide people with low incomes and housing need with affordable and secure housing.

Who is responsible for welfare services and support?

While the responsibility for funding and managing welfare services and support mainly lies with the Australian Government or state and territory governments, arrangements for delivering welfare services are complex.

In many cases, non-government organisations, or NGOs (profit or not-for-profit), deliver services. These NGOs are predominantly ‘approved providers’, meaning they have been formally authorised, contracted and/or funded by government to provide particular services. Further, service delivery can be shared between NGOs and local governments or state and territory governments.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on income support and welfare services, see the following topics at Australia’s welfare snapshots:

  • Housing
  • Employment and work
  • Social support
  • Income and finance: government payments
  • Justice and safety

Also visit:


AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2017. Australia’s welfare 2017. Australia’s welfare series no. 13. AUS 214. Canberra: AIHW.

ATO (Australian Taxation Office) 2018. If you maintained an invalid or invalid carer. Canberra: ATO. Viewed 9 May 2019.

DHS (Department of Human Services) 2018a. Concession and health care cards. Canberra: DHS. Viewed 21 November 2018.

DHS 2018b. Family Tax Benefit: Who can get it. Canberra: DHS. Viewed 3 March 2019.

DSS (Department of Social Services) 2018a. About the department. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 3 December 2018.

DSS 2018b. Corporate plan 2018–19. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 3 December 2018.

DSS 2018c. Department of Social Services Annual Report 2017–18. Canberra: DSS. Viewed 21 November 2018.

New Zealand Treasury 2018. Measuring wellbeing: the LSF dashboard. Wellington: New Zealand Treasury. Viewed 12 March 2019.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2015. How’s life? 2015: measuring well-being. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD 2019. Measuring well-being and progress: Well-being research. Paris: OECD. Viewed 13 March 2019.

Oxford University Press 2019. Oxford living dictionaries: well-being. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Viewed 16 May 2019.

Qu L, Baxter J, Weston R, Moloney L, & Hayes A 2012. Family-related life events: insights from two Australian longitudinal studies. Research Report No. 22. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

WHO (World Health Organization) 1946. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19–22 June 1946. New York: WHO.