Unpaid carers in Northern Ireland pushed further into poverty


New research has shown that unpaid carers in Northern Ireland are being pushed further into poverty while providing invaluable care.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published new findings yesterday that for the first time calculates the ‘caring penalty’, or the amount lost in earnings by those who take up caring for a loved one in the UK.   

Forced to cut down on hours worked or leave work altogether, unpaid carers are being pushed into poverty while providing invaluable care. The longer people undertake unpaid care the greater the impact on their finances, as they give up opportunities for wage growth and career progression.  

If unpaid carers do give up work, the low level of income they receive from Carer’s Allowance doesn’t protect them from poverty while also disincentivising them to return to work.

The research findings include: 

  • Unpaid carers experience an average pay penalty of £487 per month, or nearly £6,000 per year, rising to £744 per month or nearly £9,000 per year after six years of providing unpaid care.
  • Five years after starting care work, over 30 percent of those who were in paid work before providing 20 or more hours of unpaid care per week are no longer in paid work [4] 
  • Most unpaid carers who leave work don’t see their incomes replaced, over 25 percent of carers who had to give up work at the same time as beginning unpaid care work do not receive a pension, Carers Allowance or Universal Credit
    • For over two-thirds of these carers, these benefits replace less than half of their previous earnings 

JRF is calling for the contributions of our unpaid carers to be valued through Statutory Carer Pay:  

  • Carers would be eligible for 39 weeks of paid leave for one year, with the ability to take this leave flexibly 
  • The policy would be funded by the Government and, at a minimum, paid at the same level as Statutory Maternity Pay  
  • Around 65,000 carers would be expected to take up the policy each year and the majority would stay in work  

The Carer’s Leave Act 2023 will give unpaid carers one week of unpaid leave per year. However, the Act falls well short of supporting carers to balance paid work with the vital work of caring. Unpaid carers will often need more than one week of leave per year to support their loved ones. Going without pay to care also drives financial hardship for carers on low incomes. Unpaid leave doesn’t reflect the importance of caring in our society and fails to give carers the financial recognition for the work they do.  

Craig Harrison, Public Affairs Manager for Carers NI, said: “This is just the latest research to highlight the major financial impact of providing unpaid care for a sick or disabled loved one. In Northern Ireland, the punitive mix of inadequate workplace rights and lack of reliable replacement care is leaving thousands of unpaid carers excluded from the labour market and drowning in poverty.

“Carers NI’s research shows that nearly half of carers who are out of work and trying to survive on Carer’s Allowance are struggling to make ends meet. That is a staggering number which illustrates the desperate need for Stormont to reform the social care system and legislate for the likes of carer’s leave and flexible working rights – to make it easier for people to juggle work and unpaid caring.

“Those carers who need support from the welfare system also want to see root-and-branch reform of Carer’s Allowance, because at present it is utterly failing to insulate carers from poverty and forcing far too many into making desperate decisions to get by every day.”  

Abby Jitendra, principal policy adviser at JRF, said: “It’s not right that unpaid carers on low incomes are losing out on thousands of pounds and being pushed into poverty as they can no longer work while providing much needed care that benefits us all.”