8 Reasons You Need to Care About the Caring Economy

by Polly Trenow

13 June 2014

It’s carers week, hurrah! An opportunity to celebrate the work of paid and unpaid carers across the country. Yet depressingly the #carersweek hashtag currently trending on Twitter makes little, if any, mention of women even though they are the ones doing most of the work. This hardly comes as a surprise. Here’s why you need to care about the caring economy.

1. Neglect and ignorance by economists.

Unpaid care work has been largely ignored by economists despite the whole notion of the economy being based on a household where one person brings home the bacon and someone else (women) does the caring. Yet, like all economic models, it doesn’t work like this in practice.

2. More women are working, so who’s doing the caring?

As wages have stagnated there has been a demand for women to enter the workforce. Recognising the productive potential of women in the workforce, successive governments have actively encouraged this. Combined with stagnating wages which meant one wage was no longer enough for a whole family, we now have records levels of women working.

So who is caring if everyone is at work? Well actually it’s still women, which has lead to more debates about whether women are actually ‘doing it all’ rather than ‘having it all’. Despite changes in employment patterns for each gender, women remain largely in charge of care work.

3. Women are getting a raw deal from part-time jobs.

It is not surprising then that women predominate in part-time jobs (74% of them are women). Yet part time work is not paid proportionately to full time work and in general is paid about 37% less per hour. There is a significant lack of part-time roles in senior management or skilled jobs which mean when women (or anyone for that matter) wishes to work part time they usually end up working below their skills and ability. In fact, if women’s skills were fully utilised in the UK economy we would see up to around £15-20bn extra revenue per year.

It is because women are more likely to work part time and these part time jobs are in low paid sectors that the gender pay gap still stands 15.7% for full time workers.

4. What little welfare state support existed for carers has been hollowed out by austerity measures.

The welfare state has gone some way to support carers by providing (some) free childcare, giving a carer’s allowance and allowing carers to pay national insurance contributions to build something of a pension. Part-time jobs are now more common and the “right to request” flexible working is now available for all workers (although, not the right to have flexible working).

Then the financial crisis and subsequent recession happened and the austerity policies touted by the government as national medicine for the sins of the few has had quite a devastating impact on women and thus care work.

5. Women’s unemployment is showing few signs of recovery.

Public sector jobs – again where there are more women than men – have had a huge impact on women’s unemployment. Although more men than women lost their jobs in the recession, women’s unemployment has been much slower to recover. Women and men have both shifted into the private sector where wages are lower, jobs less secure and opportunities for progression now harder to come by. As a result, more women than men are now ‘underemployed’, i.e. not working as many hours as they would like to be.

6. The war on welfare has left women picking up the slack – for free.

Cuts to social security have also come from women’s pockets. Women are likely to earn less than men, so social security makes up a larger part of their income. When social security is cut, women bear the brunt with 80% of the recent cuts having come from women’s incomes. The loss of care services such as the closure of Sure Start centres has also meant women are once again picking up the slack for free. An important point to make then is that the decision to raise taxes or cut spending is highly gendered with latter having a greater, negative impact on women.

7. State responsibility to care is billed as a ‘burden’.

Government statements around the cuts have also framed public spending as a ‘cost’ or a ‘burden’ without any real recognition about the long term benefits of ensuring people are cared for, children grow up healthy and happy and that carers are able to work if they want. These are short-sighted policies which fail to anticipate the long terms costs of children growing up in poverty or the burden of ill health falling solely on the state.

8. Investment in social infrastructure needs to be a priority.

Now we are in so-called ‘recovery’, alongside investment in physical infrastructure, the Women’s Budget Group are calling for investment in social infrastructure or the caring economy. Paid care workers need better pay, working conditions and more time with their clients. Unpaid carers should receive more support and respite and be given the opportunity to take paid work if they want to. If the government continues to invest in jobs in science, engineering and technology then a concerted effort is needed to make sure half of these jobs go to women as such, well-paid, senior level jobs available as job shares or part-time are essential.

Enjoy carers week. Celebrate the 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK and the others who do this vital work for paltry hourly wages. But don’t forget this system of care work only continues to undermines women’s economic freedom. Until we invest in a caring economy, we will never have gender equality. If you care about carers the Women’s Budget Group wants to hear from you.

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