Caring comes at a cost. How about supporting systems that allow carers to work?

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The Coalition government has had a long-term focus on moving women into paid employment through increasing Welfare to Work requirements and keeping the Newstart Allowance artificially low. However, many women are unable to participate in employment due to caring duties. For some women this career break is a temporary one as children age and become less dependent, but others are looking after family members or others who have a disability or a chronic condition. In today’s piece, Melanie Zeppel (@MelanieZeppel) of GenIMPACT at Macquarie University shares findings from co-authored research on the economic analysis of the cost of caring, which overwhelmingly impacts on women.

Why carers are struggling

Informal carers – that is, people who care for others without remuneration – often need to spend time away from the workplace. The financial impacts of informal caring are therefore both significant and long-term.  Our recently-published study on the impacts of informal caring, based on data from the ABS and Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, found that women are more likely to suffer financially than men.

Our study reported there were 495,000 primary informal carers aged 15–64 years in Australia in 2015, who were providing care for someone who lives with them, for at least 6 months. 69% of the carers were females and in an older demographic.  We found that informal carers are more likely than non-carers to have reduced labour force participation, lost wages, and experience economic disadvantage. Carers’ weekly income was, on average, $936 – this is 32% less than median income for full-time employed non-carers.

Informal caring has profound and long-lasting consequences on employment and financial security, particularly for women.  Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures .

Informal caring has profound and long-lasting consequences on employment and financial security, particularly for women. Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures.

Our team modelled costs of informal care for people with chronic conditions. What we found was that women already tend to have broken careers because they are more likely to be the primary carer for children, which results in less income across the working life and less superannuation.  Becoming a carer results in a compounding of this disadvantage.

Becoming a carer has many ways of affecting one’s career. Some carers are as young as 15 years old, which means caring duties are likely to negatively impact on education, which can lead to reduced employment opportunities and income across the lifespan. Carers who start caring in their mid-career, aged in their 30’s-40’s also have their careers impacted, creating greater disparity between carers and non-carers.

One issue with our ageing population is not only a demand for more carers, but today families are often smaller, so the burden of care is spread across fewer people. 

Because informal carers often need to leave the workforce, this results in reduced income.  We projected the costs of lost income, increased welfare and lost income taxation to the government to the year 2030, based on labour force participation growth rates modelled into the future. The national income lost due to caring for chronic conditions and being out of the labour force was estimated to be $3.58 billion in 2015, which increased to $5.33 billion in 2030 – an increase of 49%.

Some policy solutions

Multiple policies and strategies can be used to solve these problems. First, better access to optimal care will reduce the demand for carers. For example, early intervention for those suffering from arthritis or back pain, resulting in managing chronic pain earlier and better, could mitigate the need for a carer at all.

Collaborations with NSW Carers and Carers Australia have shown that although respite care exists, often it is for only for a few hours each day. Further, the time for respite offered doesn’t match employment hours. While the respite program is designed to give carers a break, it is not designed to help them take up employment opportunities – but it could be, with proper investment. We need to think about full-time caring duties in the same way we think about full-time parenting duties, where childcare is deliberately provided to align with work hours.

We need a change of perspective where this type of support is available and complimentary to someone who is working. Such an investment would lead to increased funds to government by decreased welfare payments and increased taxation revenue. It would also allow women to better manage their own long-term financial security and give them more options in determining the trajectory of their lives.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens, and this piece is part of our Federal Election series 2019. Photo credit for the voter’s box in our logo: Flaticon. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen