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Where’s The Value in Social Care?

Like last week’s Spring Statement, today’s labour market bulletin is our regular reminder that there are plenty of problems positioned just out of sight. While the employment rate sits at a record high of 76.1%, and unemployment is at near record lows, the labour market, as our recent report highlighted, can often be a hotbed for stress and insecurity.

This is particularly true in areas such as social care. As the Women's Budget Group have consistently highlighted, approximately 1.4 million people now have unmet care needs – an increase of 48% since 2010. Despite this growing demand, social care spending fell by 3% between 2010/11 and 2016/17 and now accounts for more than half of all local authority spending. (You can thank ongoing austerity cuts for this).

We spoke to Matthew Egan of UNISON about the pressures care workers are facing. Watch the short videos here:

To put it bluntly, it is now widely recognised that social care is in crisis. Over half of all care workers are paid under the living wage and one in three care workers are on a zero hours contract. Despite the sector becoming increasingly educated (see yesterday’s Resolution Foundation report), social care remains chronically undervalued and underpaid.

As a side note, it is first worth noting that social care is increasingly reliant on migrant labour. The NIESR reported a 68% increase in the number of EU nationals working in social care since 2011. Yet with the Government’s new approach to “skilled migration” being to ban anyone who earns under £30,000 a year (which is the vast majority of social care workers), the sector will face even starker problems of recruitment and retention over the coming years.

At the root of social care’s problems, however, lies our current conception of value. Care is, at its very core, essential for human survival. Paid (and unpaid) care work remains a huge subsidy to the formal economy which is virtually unregistered in public policy.

Said formal economy has traditionally concerned itself only with production for market sale and, consequently excludes the state’s non-market production and household production. These boundaries are inherently gendered. The fact that social care remains predominantly the realm of working class women by all means contributes to its continuing degradation and side-lining in public policy and investment.

Importantly, these gender biases are enshrined in national accounting rules. Currently, expenditure on physical assets constitutes capital investment while expenditure on care, even though it builds human and social capital, comes from the current account.  Labour’s fiscal credibility rule, for example, which promises to balance the budget in the current account and borrow to invest (the capital account) therefore systematically disadvantages sectors such as social care.

As the population ages, demand for social care is only set to increase. By all means, further investment is desperately needed and the introduction of a National Care Service, as proposed by the Women’s Budget Group, is warranted. Sectoral collective bargaining would also allow workers to drive up pay and terms and conditions.

‘Increasing productivity’ – i.e. output per worker – has no place in a sector that is fundamentally about human dignity. Instead, we need a much wider discussion around value. Social care is about public value not just value for money. Care work needs to recognised, rewarded, reduced and redistributed and it’s time our economy, and our metrics for success, acknowledged this.

Work areas: Economy and Industry.