Fifth of residential care workers already in poverty before cost-of-living crisis escalates

One in five residential care workers in the UK were living in poverty before the cost-of-living crisis, new analysis suggests.

Care home and assisted living staff are far more likely to live in poverty than the average UK worker, according to research by the Health Foundation.

It said low pay is a “political choice” and warned that for many providing care, “work is not a reliable route out of poverty”.

The think tank pooled data over three years from two Government surveys on the incomes and living circumstances of households and families in the UK.

The sample size over three years was 1,488 care staff aged 16 and over working in nursing homes, care homes and assisted-living housing for older and disabled people.

Poverty was defined as having a household income below 60% of the median household income after housing costs.

Around one in five residential care workers (18.5%) were living in poverty in between April 2017 and April 2020, the analysis found.

This compares with 12.5% of all workers, and 8.5% of health workers, with “limited change” since 2012 which suggests “persistently high levels of poverty”.

The analysis found a further 8.5% of care workers were living just above the poverty line, meaning in total more than a quarter were living in or on the brink of poverty.

The workforce was also twice as likely to receive Universal Credit and benefits from the old system than general workers (19.6% versus 9.8%), the report said.

The research also suggests one in 10 care staff (9.6%) experienced food insecurity over the survey period.

Some 12.6% of care staff’s children were living in material deprivation, meaning they may not have access to essential resources such as fresh fruit and vegetables or adequate winter clothing.

This compares with 5.1% of children in all working families and 3.1% of children of health workers.

Since the survey period, a “grim cocktail of factors” such as the coronavirus pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have had significant impacts on the social care workforce, the Health Foundation said.

It said low pay and poor conditions in social care are contributing to chronic staffing problems, with rising vacancy rates and providers reporting difficulty recruiting.

And it warned rising prices for fuel, food and utilities are likely to put care staff at greater risk of poverty.

As its analysis does not include staff who provide care in people’s homes or work in day care services, it “may understate” rates of poverty and deprivation in the care sector.

Director of policy, Hugh Alderwick, said: “Social care workers – who are mostly women – play a vital role in society but are among the lowest paid workers in the UK, and experience shocking levels of poverty and deprivation.

“Many cannot afford enough food, shelter, clothing and other essentials, putting their health at risk.

“Sustained underfunding of social care has contributed to unacceptable pay and conditions for staff and major workforce shortages, with vacancies in England rising by 52% last year.

“This reflects political choices. If government values people using and providing social care, it must act to tackle low pay and insecure employment conditions in the sector.”

Councillor David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Low pay means care workers are having no choice but to leave the sector, creating vacancies and adding pressure to those still working in care, adding to the vicious cycle.

“Ensuring that care workers are paid fairly for their work is central to making a career in care affordable and appealing, as well as ensuring people who draw on care are best able to live an equal life.

The GMB union said care workers deserve no less than £15 an hour.

GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said: “Care workers are an immensely skilled, compassionate workforce who do an incredible difficult job.

“Instead of being properly rewarded, they are expected to survive on a whisker above the minimum wage.

“Essential care is delivered by underpaid and mostly women workers.

“And without the dedication of our care workers the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are investing £5.4 billion over the next three years to reform adult social care and have announced a £500 million fund to support discharge from hospital into the community and bolster the social care workforce.

“Most paid carers are employed by private sector providers who set their pay and conditions independently. In April 2022 the Government raised the national living wage, which will see full-time carer earnings rise by over £1,000.”

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