Across Britain, paid and unpaid care work remains undervalued and ignored: here are six ways governments can change that

Silvia Galandini Poverty in the UK, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

Being a parent, unpaid carer or paid care worker in Wales, Scotland or England too often means being forced into hardship. Silvia Galandini and Claire Spoors introduce Oxfam’s new paper, which sets out how to break the link between care and poverty.

Every day, millions of people across Britain provide essential paid and unpaid care for children as well as disabled, ill and older people.

Yet their huge contribution remains widely unseen, undervalued and underinvested in by governments. This in turn traps many people who are providing and experiencing care in a vicious cycle of poverty, hardship and exclusion.

As the vast majority of paid and unpaid care work is done by women, they are disproportionately affected by the invisibility of care. Women who face multiple, often overlapping, forms of inequality based on class, race, migrant status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disability or other identities, are worst affected.

Poverty, precarity and exploitation

Evidence produced by the many organisations and movements across Britain who advocate for paid and unpaid carers shows how many have fallen into poverty and hardship, exacerbated by the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and years of austerity. Care workers are widely underpaid and experience precarity and exploitation, while social care and childcare infrastructure are under incredible pressure and struggling to deliver vital care.

Our new paper launched this week sets out how the pervasive and systemic undervaluation of care creates and deepens the link between caring and poverty, and deepens existing inequalities. Key factors driving poverty among carers include lack of support those with unpaid caring responsibilities to both access and remain in paid work; an inadequate social security system; poor pay and working conditions for care workers; and chronic underinvestment in social care and childcare services.

Underlying all of this is the way society and institutions view and talk about care and carers: our paper highlights the underlying ‘sticky’ social norms, values and narratives that devalue, ignore and dismiss care as ‘women’s work’ that is less deserving of status and financial reward.

It is time for a proactive shift in our economic approach to a model that invests in a feminist caring economy – where all care, paid and unpaid, is recognized and valued as a vital social good and a collective responsibility; unpaid care is reduced and redistributed; paid care is adequately rewarded; and all carers have a powerful voice in decision-making.

Six areas for action to transform care and carers’ lives

Across Britain, action by the Westminster and devolved governments in Scotland and Wales1 is urgently needed across six key areas, to catalyse a shift to a caring economy. They must:

  1. Reform the tax system and make it fair, redistributive and progressive to resource a shift to a caring economy, and to recognize and redistribute the wealth that is created and sustained by the labour of unpaid and underpaid carers.
  2. Increase investment in care infrastructure, and ensure that the quality and accessibility of services is prioritized over profits.
  3. Ensure that paid care workers across the social care and childcare sectors are paid fairly, have access to stable employment and decent working conditions, and that their skills are properly recognized.
  4. Strengthen the social security system for all, including those who cannot work or have to reduce their working hours due to caring responsibilities, disabilities or illness.
  5. Ensure adequate support for those with unpaid caring responsibilities to enable them to access, return to or remain in decent paid employment.
  6. Commit to transparently collect data and track progress on whether policies and spending decisions are effectively valuing and investing in all care and carers.

As Oxfam, we work in solidarity and partnership with the organisations, movements, coalitions and activists that are driving change in these areas, not only across Britain but also globally – recognizing that some of the systems of power that perpetuate poverty and inequalities are essentially the same worldwide.

Transforming Britain’s care policies and systems will require political will, commitment and leadership, as well as a shift in the narratives surrounding care. It’s time to break the link between caring, inequalities and poverty.

Author

Silvia Galandini

Silvia Galandini is the Domestic Poverty Lead at Oxfam GB

Author

Claire Spoors

Claire Spoors is Advocacy Adviser – UK Inequality at Oxfam GB

The above blog is adapted from the executive summary to the full paper: Valued: Breaking the link between paid and unpaid care, poverty and inequalities across Britain

1As Oxfam’s remit is limited to Britain (Scotland, England and Wales), this is the focus of the report, with evidence relevant to the constituent nations presented whenever available. In some instances, UK-wide statistics are used in the absence of data covering only Britain.