Social security review leaves Australia’s carers in limbo

Many carers sacrifice their own careers and wellbeing so would welcome a helping hand back into quality work when the time is right. Shutterstock/Lighthunter

Carers received relatively little attention in the interim report of the Review of Australia’s Welfare System. This was despite early media reports that the Carer Payment would be a target for reform.

The report emphasises the benefits of work for carers and characterises their entitlement to income support as temporary rather than long-term. But the review’s implications for carers, including whether they face changes to their paid work obligations, remain unclear.

The characterisation of caring as a temporary disruption to employment does send some troubling messages. It downplays the value and importance of caring, and ignores the costs and difficulties associated with families’ – particularly women’s – responsibility for the bulk of family care.

It also reinforces negative perceptions of people with disability: if they are not “rorters” who are secretly able to work, they are an inconvenient disruption to carers’ working lives.

A single working-age payment

The creation of a single working-age payment for everyone “with some capacity to work now or in the future” is a key recommendation of the report. This would replace payments like the Newstart Allowance, the Parenting Payment and (to a large extent) the Disability Support Pension. It would also replace the Carer Payment.

Payment “tiers” – with different rates and conditions – would take into account an individual’s circumstances, including caring responsibilities and disability. It is unclear whether current payment rates would be preserved.

This change is recommended to ensure that claimants who have the capacity to work are not “arbitrarily” excluded from the requirement to participate in paid work or other activities to increase their job-readiness. This reflects the review’s main goal of increasing individuals’ “self-reliance” through paid work.

The Carer Payment occupies an unusual position in the income-support system. It is available for people providing “constant” care for a child or adult with considerable care needs. These needs are assessed, based on a health professional’s evaluation and the carer’s description of his or her “care load”.

Participation requirements do not apply to Carer Payment claimants, unlike most Newstart claimants and some people claiming Disability Support Pension and Parenting Payment. Carer Payment recipients can – but are not required to – undertake up to 25 hours a week of paid work, education, training or volunteering while remaining eligible for income support.

Difficult balance between care and paid work

It is not clear whether the changes proposed in the interim report would change the assessment test and participation obligations of carers.

At one point, the interim report classifies carers, along with Parenting Payment recipients, as “not available for full-time work”. This appears to raise the possibility that Carer Payment recipients could be subject to work capacity assessments and expected to participate in paid work or related activities on a part-time basis.

The review headed by Patrick McClure focuses in its interim report on supporting carers in their role but is unclear about their income support. AAP/Dave Hunt

Other parts of the report suggest that carers would not be required to work while their caring roles are ongoing. Instead, the focus is on supporting them to:

… continue to do their caring role whilst supporting them to remain attached to the labour market or re-enter it wherever possible.

Despite expressing concerns about the detrimental effects of “long-term disconnection from work”, the report only refers to support for carers to “transition to work” after caring ceases. It suggests “a discussion about future plans” would be an appropriate form of participation for carers with current caring responsibilities.

The report notes that disability support provided through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) might enable some carers to return to work. Carers Australia warns that it is too early to predict the scheme’s impacts. It has expressed support for measures to help carers move into paid work once their caring ends.

Improving carers’ access to quality work could help overcome some of the difficulties they often face. These include financial hardship and poorer health and well-being. Any measures of this kind must also respond to structural issues like age discrimination (many carers are older women) and the availability of suitable, flexible jobs, as Veronica Sheen has observed.

Carers make an invaluable contribution

While the government has repeatedly emphasised the importance of workforce participation for individuals and the nation, it has a big incentive to continue supporting unpaid carers. It is far less expensive to provide income support than it is to fund formal care.

The policy tension between promoting paid work for all and supporting care is likely to be an ongoing issue. Population ageing is expected to lead to both increased demand for care (and carers’ income support) and a shrinking pool of workers.

For this reason, it seems unlikely that the introduction of a single working-age payment – if implemented as recommended – would result in mandatory work requirements for people who qualify for the Carer Payment on the basis of their constant caring roles.

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