Supporting carers: political discourse limits women's options at every turn

Australia’s approach to supporting carers reflects a judgment on parenting vs other kinds of caring, which has led to a punitive approach to supporting single parents, usually mothers. In no way does caring support provide the flexibility most carers – primarily women –  would like for active participation in formal employment. Today’s policy analysis examines how caring policies could be reconfigured to provide more support for the lived realities of all carers while also interrogating the negative discourse around parenting roles.

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Yvette Maker, Melbourne Law School, Disability Research Initiative

Topic: Income support for carers

Caring and income support: current realities

Bettina Cass once described income support payments for those with caring responsibilities as ‘Australia’s welfare regime caring-net’.[1] This caring-net has long raised a dilemma for feminists concerned with social policy. On the one hand, payments for sole parents (predominantly claimed by mothers) and payments for carers (also predominantly claimed by women)[2] confer financial and social value on care, and may enable women to live independently without relying on paid employment or a breadwinner partner.[3] On the other hand, such payments risk reinforcing women’s responsibility for care and excluding them from the labour market, while being paid at insufficient rates to alleviate financial stress or afford a decent standard of living.[4]

Welfare-to-work reforms introduced over the past decade have poked some substantial holes in the caring-net. Parenting Payment, previously available to sole or partnered parents of dependent children under 16, now ceases when a youngest child turns eight (for sole parents) or six (for partnered parents). After this point, most claimants must move to Newstart Allowance, the unemployment benefit. Most parents claiming these payments are also subject to participation requirements – usually paid work or related activities – once their youngest child turns six. These changes, along with the declining value of Parenting Payment relative to pension payments and widely accepted insufficiency of Newstart Allowance, have all undermined the extent to which the income support system values and supports parental care for dependent children.

Angels and demons

One care-based payment that has escaped the long reach of welfare-to-work reforms is Carer Payment, a pension for those providing ‘constant care’ to a person with a disability or medical condition. Changes to eligibility criteria mean that access to Carer Payment has been extended to more carers in the last decade,[5] and carers have not (yet) been made subject to participation requirements.

These divergent reform paths have been accompanied by vastly different political discourses, with the demonisation of ‘jobless’ and ‘welfare dependent’ sole parents who are not in paid work contrasting with the celebration of ‘heroic’ carers who are engaged in full-time care[6] – although the Government’s recent singling out of young carers as being at risk of ‘long-term welfare dependency’ is a concerning development in this regard.

Striking a balance between caring and employment

Despite their differences, these policies share some problematic similarities. Each requires women to prioritise either paid work or care. Parenting Payment and Newstart Allowance claimants may lose eligibility for support if they do not meet their paid work participation requirements. This is despite research demonstrating the practical difficulties that women face in juggling care and part-time or casual work, and repeated studies confirming that claimants are financially worse-off than they were under the old system.

On the other hand, Carer Payment claimants will only qualify for support if they are providing constant care, and they may lose eligibility for payment if they exceed 25 hours of non-care activities (such as paid work or volunteering) per week, or 63 days per year. This is in spite of research showing that many carers would like to work more, and that income support is insufficient to compensate for all of the costs of care, or to protect against financial stress. Recent reports suggest that the roll-out of the NDIS may not expand carers’ options in this regard.

Flexible approaches needed to reflect realities

Policy reform is required to challenge this dichotomous approach, and make more diverse and beneficial combinations of unpaid care and paid work available. Such reforms must ensure that all people can maintain a decent standard of living regardless of how they combine these pursuits. This might require, for instance, increases to payment rates, the ability for claimants to split payments between multiple people, attaching care ‘credits’ to payments to compensate for foregone superannuation, addressing Effective Marginal Tax Rates to ensure that ‘work pays’, and making participation requirements more flexible to reflect the real-life vagaries of care and work.

Conversations about a basic income payment are gathering steam in Australia, and such a payment could fortify the caring-net in important ways. If appropriately configured, it would improve the valuing and support of care – but not at the expense of paid work participation – by providing security of income regardless of how women (and men) combine unpaid care and paid work, or the extent of support they have from a partner. Importantly, a basic income model could also afford greater choice and control to people using support or care, often termed ‘care recipients’ in this policy area – a notion problematised by disability rights activists and scholars on the basis that it places people with disability in positions of passivity and dependency on ‘care-givers’. These care or support users are also affected by the limited range of options available in the caring-net, and should be able to choose different lives and opportunities to those currently facilitated by the income support system.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen


[1] pp. 240-56.

[2] ibid.

[3] Orloff, A S 1993, ‘Gender and the social rights of citizenship: The comparative analysis of gender relations and welfare states’, American Sociological Review, vol. 58, pp. 303-28; Shaver, S 1995, 'Women, employment and social security', in A Edwards and S Magarey (eds.), Women in a Restructuring Australia: Work and Welfare, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards NSW, pp. 141-57.

[4] Cass B 2006, above n 1; Jenson, J & Jacobzone 2000, ‘Care allowances for the frail elderly and their impact on women care-givers’, OECD Labour Market and Social Policy Occasional Papers, no. 41, OECD Publishing, Paris, online accessed 13 December 2016, ; Cummins, R A, Hughes, J, Tomyn, A, Gibson, A, Woerner, J & Lai, L 2007, Australian Unity Wellbeing Index Survey 7.1: The Wellbeing of Australia - Carer Health and Wellbeing, Deakin University and Australian Unity Limited, online accessed 13 December 2016,

[5] Social Security Legislation Amendment (Improved Support for Carers) Act 2009

[6] See also Commonwealth of Australia 2005, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 30 November 2005, p. 29 (Russell Broadbent); Commonwealth of Australia 2009, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 13 May 2009, p. 3802 (Shayne Neumann).