Paying the Price of Care

Care is the glue that holds society together – so why is the sector so chronically undervalued in Wales?

A new billionaire has been created every 26 hours since the pandemic began.

Let that fact sink in.

Now consider this: in the same period, the world’s 10 richest men have doubled their fortunes, while some have even launched themselves and their friends into space.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has taken a pay cut, with a further 160 million people pushed into poverty. Such poverty does not only create immense suffering. It kills. In every country, the poorest people face an earlier death than those who are not poor.

Oxfam estimates that Covid-caused global austerity measures will roll back the clock on women’s rights and progress toward gender equality even further.

These are the startling statistics behind the key finding of a new global report by Oxfam this month: that inequality is not just damaging, it’s deadly. 

Our report Inequality Kills provides a clear illustration that the world’s existing economic model simply isn’t working. It’s valuing the wrong things, and grossly rewarding the wrong people. And it’s women and other marginalised groups who stand to pay the highest price.

Political leaders know full well that inequality disproportionately impoverishes women whose unpaid care work so often plugs gaps in public services and absorbs the shock of economic crises.

In fact, Oxfam estimates that Covid-caused global austerity measures will roll back the clock on women’s rights and progress toward gender equality even further, amid a crisis that has already set back the goal of achieving gender parity by a whole generation to 135 years, when previously it was 99.

Here in Wales, instead of thinking about heading into space, more and more people are thinking of heading to their local food bank as the cost-of-living crisis we’re all facing begins to bite, driven by soaring prices and stagnating wages.

Cost of living emergency

The problems of poverty and inequality in Wales aren’t new. They’re pervasive, long lasting, and illustrated by the fact that we have the worst child and relative poverty rates in the UK.

Last week, the Senedd convened an emergency debate on the issue where Jane Hutt, Minister for Social Justice, committed to holding a special summit next month to devise an action plan to help cushion the blow for families in Wales. 

But as extraordinary as the circumstances we’re currently facing may seem, the problems of poverty and inequality in Wales aren’t new. They’re pervasive, long lasting, and illustrated by the fact that we have the worst child and relative poverty rates in the UK and have done throughout Welsh Labour’s 25 years in Government. One Member described us as facing ‘Victorian levels of poverty in modern day Wales’.

There’s no denying that significant levers for change lie at Westminster, but the Welsh Government is far from powerless. There are some immediate steps Ministers could take to use all of the levers at their disposal to start rebalancing our economy and to help meet its objective of being a Feminist Government.

A good place to start would be a complete rethink of how the nation’s carers are valued and rewarded. 

We all need care at some point in our lives: whether as a child, in ill health or through disability, or in older age. Yet too often, the people who care for us, whether they be unpaid carers, parents or paid care workers, face poverty as a direct consequence of caring. 

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It’s unconscionable that the very people who helped get the nation through the darkest days of the pandemic – the vast majority of whom are women – are left to languish in poverty. 

On paper, the First Minister gets it. His own leadership manifesto stated that ‘Women’s unpaid care in the home and in the low pay insecure work of social care also needs to be properly valued’. But he’s a long way off from achieving that ambition. 

Is paid work the way out of poverty?

Of course, we often hear that work is the best route out of poverty. For many of Wales’ carers that old adage simply isn’t true. Some unpaid carers are unable to fit paid work around their caring responsibilities and are instead forced to rely on a social security ‘safety net’ that has more holes than Swiss cheese. 

And parents, too, face being locked out of employment due to eye watering childcare costs which can mean that it doesn’t pay to work. 

Instead of just rolling out the existing Childcare Offer to two-year olds, Ministers should listen to anti-poverty and women’s equality organisations.

For many paid care workers – including care home and nursery staff – the situation is no better as they face poverty wages and precarious working conditions. How can it be right that people who nurture and look after our children and grandparents cannot afford to live decently?

The Welsh Government doesn’t need to wait for Westminster to act in many of these areas. Take childcare as a case in point. At the moment, the Welsh Government offers funded childcare hours to specific groups of working parents of three- and four-year olds. Under the Welsh Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition, this offer is set to be expanded to include two-year olds. 

Sure, the Welsh Government’s Childcare Offer has benefitted eligible parents in Wales, with 84% of users reporting that they now have more disposable income and 56% reporting more opportunities to increase their income. 

But it’s missed the point when it comes to helping mums get into or remain in employment after maternity leave, with the Welsh Government’s own figures showing only a minuscule proportion of parents who have accessed the Offer weren’t previously in work. 

The flaws are inherent in the design: parents find themselves facing three years in the employment wilderness before they’re able to access the Offer, and even then, they need to be already working in order to be eligible for it or able to fork out for significant up front nursery costs. Simply put, the Offer is too little, too late.

Instead of just rolling out the existing Childcare Offer to two-year olds, Ministers should listen to anti-poverty and women’s equality organisations and completely revisit the parameters of the scheme: making it available to all parents whose children are aged six months and above and ensuring that it does everything in its power to increase the hourly wage of childcare staff.

It’s exactly the sort of progressive, courageous political thinking we need to see from Wales’ leaders if they’re going to begin building a post-pandemic country that cares, underpinned by an economy in which nobody lives in poverty, and in which inequality no longer kills. 

The people of Wales simply can’t afford to wait any longer. 


All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Sarah Rees is Head of Oxfam Cymru and oversees Oxfam’s policy, advocacy, campaigns and communications in Wales.

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