I left university some 20 years ago (how did that happen?!) with real fire in my belly, angry at the injustice of poverty and how those in poverty were treated.
That passion for social change was never lost but was rekindled when I became part of the carers’ movement, which fights for support that should be readily available to help carers and their loved ones achieve the quality of life so many of us take for granted.
As an unpaid carer for my husband, that fight has affected our own, small family unit. Battling burgeoning bureaucracy in public services is a daily part of our lives. In those battles, carers talk about losing themselves and of having to give up on their own dreams and ambitions. For many, battling for appropriate care means leaving work and abandoning their career. I have seen this happen to fellow activists and it’s something which I fear.
I know what giving up work will mean – consider Carers Allowance which remains the lowest of income replacement benefits. It means being the target of the Coalition’s “slash and burn” policy agenda. It would mean being viewed in society as being something less. Politicians talk a good game. They say they value unpaid care –whether that be for children or family members. But watch Engender’s new video for the “Making Work Visible” campaign and see the reality. Paid work is still the prize in terms of economic policy – unpaid work remains unsupported and undervalued.
The Scottish Government estimates that by 2037, over one million of us will become carers. The impact of caring is borne disproportionately by women and it affects their place and value in the economy and within the labour market. Carers UK tells us that 2 million people have quit work to care and almost 3 million have reduced their working hours. This increases dependence on the benefits system and on tax credits which are being cut significantly. Poverty is therefore a likely outcome for far too many unpaid carers.
Meanwhile, the TUC highlights the “lack of well paid jobs for women who don’t work full time”. Too many jobs do not offer the flexibility needed to continue to balance work and care. Take all of this into account and then consider the increasing number of sandwich carers – those who care for an elderly relative and a disabled spouse or child. Devaluing the care economy and not dealing directly with the increasingly unbearable pressures on carers is a recipe for disaster.
Our economy, all key public services and our society depend on unpaid care. Without it, they would fall apart. That will continue to be the case and it is beyond sad that inequality of employment, income, and opportunity remain part of the real story of caring. None of this will ever change unless we look at policy creation which recognises the increasing complexity of our lives. We need politicians to take the lead – it is not enough to have our first female First Minister when the debate about care does not extend to the bureaucracy and unresponsive nature of public services such as social care. The lack of serious debate about these issues acts as a barrier which prevents women from achieving their own goals and ambitions.
And it is these very dreams and ambitions - the experience of women – which could provide some direction and vision as we come face to face with very serious and complex policy challenges – tighter finances, public service reform and creation of social security policy in Scotland. In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburgh: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made….It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
She was referring to the justice system, but her wisdom extends beyond this. As we leave behind International Women’s Day, the real catalyst for change will come when there are genuine opportunities for women at the very centre of the policy making process. We can start with the planned Carers’ Bill, the Smith legislative clauses and implementation of the refreshed Economic Strategy. We have an enviable and once in a lifetime opportunity to act and be the change that is so desperately needed.
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