Blog by Sheena McMullen, Action for Children and Carer Poverty Commission Steering Group member.
In an ideal world, young carers wouldn’t exist, and all children and young people would be guaranteed their rights to relax, play, fully access education and be protected from responsibilities that might impact their long-term life chances and development.
In this kind of world, we would have invested properly in the systems and structures that support those who need care, and not place that burden on those under the age of 18 or within the transitionary stage into adulthood. However, the reality is – we haven’t.
The picture we have instead is far from ideal. At times, it feels like we are all collectively closing our eyes and refusing to see. Young carers and young adult carers are expected to navigate childhood, adolescence and early adulthood with extra layers of challenges at almost every turn. Many of them do not know there are support services available, and for those that do - the pressure and sense of invisibility amongst peers and wider society is still an all-too-common experience.
This invisibility is often reflected within political decision-making processes, where there is a glaring need for them to be seen and heard across a range of policy areas – not least anti-poverty measures.
Links between caring and poverty
Evidence from the Sutton Trust highlights that young carers are more likely to live in areas of high deprivation, and that many high-potential, disadvantaged young people are three times more likely to be young carers. This data also indicates that young carers are four times more likely than their peers to live in a single-parent household, often trying to operate within a much lower household income than coupled households and with less access to savings. Not only is it clear that the talent of these children and young people are not being fully realised, but they face further inequalities in terms of household income and potential over-dependence on an inadequate social security system. This can permanently limit their social mobility as well as the physical and mental toll that caring for a family member often presents. Like other age groups of carers, young carers quickly encounter that society and the systems and services we have built do not value unpaid care work.
In the wider context of a cost-of-living crisis, Action for Children have been supporting low-income families in Northern Ireland with access to a Crisis Fund, to help with essentials like food, oil, electricity and gas. In 2022, more than half (54%) of those supported over the winter were claiming Universal Credit and were disproportionately single parent (one-income) households (45%). A significant number of applications were received via our Young Carers services. It is clear that more must be done to protect young carers from the pressures of poverty and that Universal Credit is not providing the safety net needed by many young carer families.
Implementing a Young Carers Grant or recognition payment – similar to Scotland and recommended by the Welfare Mitigations Review – could be a useful tool to respond to this area of need. Wider consultation with Young Carers and their families on this concept should be initiated.
Including young carers in the conversation
This blog outlines just some of the challenges facing young carers in a time of political uncertainty in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the most recent strategy for Carers in Northern Ireland was published in 2006 and years of political instability continues to impact policy progression in a wide-range of areas. Recent cuts within our Educational system, Health and Social Care and directly impacting the Voluntary and Community Sector mean the ideal picture we hoped for feels distant, at best.
However, glimmers of hope remain. Action for Children welcome the current work on a New Deal for Unpaid Carers from the Coalition of Carers Organisations, and propose that it must further develop a clearly defined sense of direction for the young carer and young adult carer population in Northern Ireland. The specific challenges they face must be comprehensively outlined, and young carers must be invited to participate in the development of all initiatives that may directly affect them – including their experiences of financial hardship.
In line with that, we are delighted to support the work of the Carers Poverty Commission and are committed to engaging as much as we can as it seeks to deliver new research evidence on the scale and drivers of poverty among carers, including young carers. This simple, but important, decision to include them in the conversation and thinking around interventions that could make the most impact is a positive and important step.
It is our hope that this example of inclusion will become the norm. That stakeholders across the various arenas where important decisions are made will open their eyes and see the young carer population – recoginsing that more can be done to ensure they can reach their full potential, afford the essentials and enjoy a safe and happy childhood.