Blog post based on an article in the July issue of Journal of Social Policy

Carers (people who provide unpaid care for sick and disabled friends or relatives) are increasingly becoming recognised as playing a crucial role in many modern societies. The UK is no exception, where a combination of an aging population and social welfare cutbacks has resulted in a significant amount of health and social care needs being met by carers. As a consequence, there have been many official developments to help support carers in their roles, alongside a welfare benefit called Carer’s Allowance (CA) offering financial support to those with significant caring responsibilities.

This article contributes to expanding research on carers in the UK (and elsewhere). Drawing on data from a study conducted in 2009-2010, it examines the role CA plays in carers’ lives, showing how, in addition to financial support, it helps provide acknowledgement of their contribution to society. Data was analysed through a lens of citizenship, drawing on gender-centred approaches arguing that normative ideas about civic engagement are involved in debates about the welfare state. In this sense, it is claimed that an ‘acknowledgment / recognition’ aspect of CA is a crucial bulwark against the way carers’ roles in, and contribution to, society can be rendered “invisible” in public discourse. The current UK government is attempting to make radical changes to the welfare benefit system, streamlining it to create a ‘universal credit’ (HM Government, 2012). Based on data presented here, we argue that, in designing legislation which will affect carers, the issue of citizenship should be carefully considered.

Carers in the study claimed that CA was not only about the provision of financial support, but also played a role in contributing to their notions of citizenship. CA can be seen to be involved in various forms of civic engagement, the distribution of rights and entitlements, and the worthiness of certain groups of people to engage in desirable activities or access particular commodities. The authors claimed that future changes to the welfare benefit system affecting carers must incorporate this issue. On the basis of this study, the authors claim that the official recognition of carers’ contributions to UK society provided by CA is a crucial aspect of what the benefit offers.

Carers occupy an unusual position as recipients of welfare support and this is shown to be a key consideration. Unlike other state benefits, CA is assessed not only on the basis of the claimant but also on that of the person being cared for. During discussion, several respondents in this study distanced themselves from other welfare claimant groups (e.g. the unemployed) while some talked about feeling stigmatised as a result of others treating them as similar. On this basis, the authors claim that if, in the future, CA is combined with other benefits, its distinct nature (as a recognition of carers’ contribution to society) would be concealed, while negative feelings towards claimants of other benefits might be transferred to carers in receipt of state support. It is also possible that by incorporating carers with other benefit recipients, their diverse needs might be overlooked and they might be treated as another group of people to be guided into employment. Whatever further reforms the welfare benefit system involves, it is clear that there will be “moral and political consequences of [the reformer’s] success” (Tronto, 2005 132) and that these will be felt keenly by carers.

Another issue highlighted in this study relates to the way public opinion has a tendency to consider paid work the most effective way of achieving choice, control and security in life. Over the last decade, employment has been regarded as a significant way of both improving carers’ lives and ensuring that their valuable contributions are not lost to society. While many employment-focused initiatives have been positive for carers, the citizenship perspective adopted in this study shows that these are unlikely to contribute to reframing citizenship in a way that truly embraces carers’ valuable contributions. Rather than accepting caring as a necessary duty of citizenship, such measures allow carers to retain full citizenship only by allowing them to combine work with caring. While this may be a realistic approach in the short and medium term, it will, the authors argue, continue to reinforce the pre-eminence of paid work rather than caring as the key source of citizenship, resulting in carers becoming vulnerable whenever political change moves in new directions. There is a likelihood (particularly during economic downturns) that people are pushed into work when inappropriate, with the associated risk of carers suffering breakdowns and the subsequent costs of caring falling solely on the resources of health and social care systems. Given the oft demonstrated (and officially acknowledged) importance of carers to UK society, attention should be given to changes with a potentially negative impact on carers’ lives.

In conclusion, the article suggests that normative notions of citizenship are bound up in debates around welfare benefits and caring. The authors argue that welfare benefit reform is not simply a matter of streamlining existing forms of wealth distribution, but rather involves the way different activities are valued. It is claimed that, for the needs of carers to be met, adjustments needs to be made which embrace the importance placed on care in people’s lives. Measures to facilitate the employability of carers may be welcome in the short-term, but the authors believe that these are unlikely to affect inequities lying at the root of challenges faced by carers. Similarly, it is claimed that measures developed to reform welfare benefit systems which have the effect of obscuring carers as a distinct group (or undermine the official acknowledgement they receive) have an avoidable potential to worsen carers’ lives.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Citizen Carer: Carer’s Allowance and Conceptualisations of UK Citizenship here

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