Blog from Craig Harrison, Public Affairs Manager at Carers NI.
“This is my normal… Poverty is literally all I’ve ever known.” That’s just one example of the heart-breaking testimony from unpaid carers that is published in the Carer Poverty Commission’s latest research today.
The Commission has spent the last six months speaking to unpaid carers from across the region to better understand the financial circumstances they’re living in, and the result is 20+ pages of devastating insights that should make the whole of Northern Irish society hang its head in shame.
Our research found that one in four unpaid carers in Northern Ireland are living in poverty – significantly more than NI’s non-carer population (16%) and higher than the carer poverty rate in the rest of the UK (23%).
What those numbers mean is local carers living in despair every day, as they grapple with a dangerous mixture of inescapable caring costs, barriers to work and pitiful support from the social security system.
We have carers who are too embarrassed to have family members visit them, because the pennies per hour they receive in Carer’s Allowance isn’t enough to put heating oil in an empty tank.
Carers who are borrowing money from loan sharks every summer so they can afford their children’s uniform for the new school term.
Carers saying a silent prayer that their bank card isn’t declined every time they arrive at the supermarket till.
And carers who just can’t make their finances stretch far enough each month, despite relying on charity shops and cutting back on all the essentials they can.
Contributing to one of our focus groups, a carer described the constant, crippling fear that this poverty instils, which scars their quality of life and shapes so many of the decisions they make each day:
Carers are always one white good appliance away from destitution. And that's always in the back of your head. You don't drive far away in case you get a parking ticket or caught speeding. You don't use your white appliances as much because you're terrified that one day they're just going to give up on you. There's just so much at stake.”
Anxiety, chronic stress and wider mental ill-health are the inevitable consequences. It just shouldn’t be this way.
Northern Ireland’s unpaid carer population is saving the public pursue billions of pounds each year – propping up our health and social care system and saving Stormont’s budget from total collapse. In return for such an immense contribution, they shouldn’t be condemned to a life of hardship, hunger and debt.
Our policymakers must do better. They should start with increasing the support carers receive through Carer’s Allowance and other welfare benefits, as well as delivering the employment rights that carers need to be able to safely juggle paid employment with their caring role.
Businesses and wider society have important roles to play, too, by introducing the supportive practices and policies carers need to be able to go to work and utilise community services.
The cost of living crisis has left very few families untouched, but too many of our carers were struggling to make ends meet even before the price of food, energy and other bills began to sky-rocket. We need political and civic leaders to work together and deliver a future where carer poverty is never considered ‘normal’ again.