Northern Ireland’s unpaid carers are living in devastating poverty, and they need help from Stormont now, writes Carers NI’s Craig Harrison.
“This is my normal. Poverty is all I have ever known.” That is just one example of the testimony from unpaid carers that is published in the latest research from the Carer Poverty Commission Northern Ireland.
The Commission has spent the last six months speaking to those who provide unpaid care for sick or disabled family members and friends across the region, to better understand the financial circumstances they are living in. The result is a devastating insight into the hardship facing many local carers.
We found that one in four carers here are living in poverty, equating to 55,000 people, which is significantly more than the poverty rate among Northern Ireland’s non-carer population (16 per cent) and higher than the carer poverty rate in the rest of the UK (23 per cent).
These numbers represent local carers living in despair every day, as they grapple with a combination of inescapable caring costs, barriers to work, and pitiful welfare support.
We have carers who are embarrassed to have family members visit, because the pennies per hour they receive in Carer’s Allowance is not enough to put heating oil in an empty tank.
Carers borrowing money from loan sharks so they can clothe their children.
Carers saying a prayer that their bank card is not declined every time they arrive at the supermarket till.
And carers who just cannot make their finances stretch far enough each month, despite relying on charity shops and cutting back on all the essentials they can.
Anxiety, chronic stress, and wider mental ill-health are the inevitable consequences.
Northern Ireland’s unpaid carer population is saving the public pursue billions of pounds each year, propping up our health and social care system and saving Stormont’s budget from total collapse. They should not be condemned to a life of hardship, hunger, and debt in return.
Our policymakers must do better, and it is particularly shameful that when unpaid carers are facing such dire poverty, they cannot look to their government for help.
The Stormont institutions must return urgently and make carers a priority, starting with reform of the support carers receive through the welfare system, as well as delivering the employment rights that carers need to be able to safely juggle paid employment with their caring role.
Businesses and wider society have important roles to play, too, by introducing the supportive practices and policies carers need to be able to go to work and utilise community services.
The cost-of-living crisis has left very few families untouched, but too many of our carers were struggling to make ends meet even before the price of food, energy and other bills began to sky-rocket.
We need political and civic leaders to deliver a future where carer poverty is never considered ‘normal’ again.