Impact of poverty on UK residential care workers: Examining the costs of care

Impact of poverty on UK residential care workers: Examining the costs of care

 Poverty and deprivation are prevalent issues in the UK, affecting one in five individuals. Despite government policy stating that work is the best route out of poverty, many who experience poverty in the UK live in households where at least one adult is employed. The social care sector, particularly residential care workers, is particularly affected by poverty due to low pay, insecure employment conditions, and high vacancy and turnover rates. Central government funding plays a significant role in determining the pay for care providers, however, the social care sector has experienced years of underfunding. While there have been efforts by devolved governments to improve pay for care staff, policy to improve pay in England has been limited. However, research on poverty and deprivation among social care workers in the UK is limited and more needs to be done to understand the factors shaping these experiences.

About this analysis

In this study, we utilize national survey data to examine the rates of poverty and deprivation among residential care workers in comparison to other sectors in the UK. Our analysis covers the period prior to the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, which is likely to have further exacerbated the risk of poverty and deprivation. We provide a comprehensive overview of the current context of national workforce policy, employment conditions in adult social care, and existing evidence on in-work poverty and deprivation in the UK, and among social care workers. Through our analysis, we aim to identify the poverty and deprivation levels among residential care workers and examine the factors that contribute to these issues. Additionally, we will delve into the policy implications of our findings and discuss potential solutions to tackle poverty and deprivation among social care workers.

How many people live in poverty and deprivation in the UK?

In 2019/20, 14.5 million people in the UK were living in poverty, making up about 20% of the population. In-work poverty is prevalent, with around half of those experiencing poverty living in households where at least one person is in paid work. This trend has been driven by factors such as the rise of part-time work, increased employment rates, and high risks of in-work poverty for renting families.

 To understand who cannot afford an acceptable standard of living, we also examine material deprivation among residential care workers, including children in their households, household food insecurity, and low income. In the UK, approximately 1 in 10 children are materially deprived and live in a low-income household, which is a lower rate than a decade ago. Estimates of food insecurity in the UK vary, but it affects less than 10% of households. However, there is evidence that food insecurity has been increasing.

 The consequences of poverty and deprivation are severe, with financial hardship and limited access to essentials such as food having a detrimental impact on people's health and relationships. Experiencing deprivation as a child affects mental, physical, and social development and can negatively impact an individual's chances of living a healthy life as an adult.

Why do people experience poverty and deprivation?

Deprivation and poverty at the household level arise from the combined incomes of individuals in a household being insufficient. These incomes are shaped by factors such as the characteristics of household members and the structure of the welfare state and labor market.

 Most of people's incomes come from employment, and low pay is associated with poverty and food insecurity in the UK. Low-paid employees are also more likely to experience insecure employment conditions such as inconsistent hours and pay, which in turn impact financial security. However, it should be noted that working a low-paid job does not always mean someone lives in poverty and deprivation.

 The extent to which household members participate in the labor market, including the number of earners and hours worked, affects experiences of in-work poverty. Part-time employment increases the risk of poverty, but having two or more earners in a household greatly reduces this risk, even if they work part-time or for low pay.

 Certain individuals are more likely to experience worse living standards than others. Gender, disability status, age, and ethnicity all affect the likelihood of living in poverty and deprivation in the UK. Women are more likely to experience in-work poverty than men, and younger people are also more likely to experience poverty and food insecurity, partly due to often being in low-paid and insecure jobs. Poverty rates are highest among people from Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnic backgrounds, and food insecurity is highest among black people.

What do we already know about poverty among social care workers?

Adult social care workers in the UK are low paid and experience poor working conditions. Previous research has found that residential care workers are more likely to live in poverty than workers in most other industries. In 2017/18, nearly 20% of residential care workers were living in poverty, the third highest rate of any occupation, after accommodation and catering and retail. 

There has been limited in-depth analysis of the factors affecting poverty rates among residential care workers. An analysis of FRS/HBAI data from 2009 to 2012 found that residential care had the fourth-highest household poverty rate (14%) of any sector. However, when looking at single-adult households only, residential care had the second-highest in-work poverty rate (25.3%, compared with 13.8% for all single-person households). This suggests that working in residential care makes it more likely for a person to live in poverty than in almost all other sectors, unless there are other workers in the household.

 There is little evidence on deprivation among social care workers in the UK. However, it is clear that some care workers in the UK experience financial problems and rely on state support. Analysis of survey data from 2013 to 2018 in the United States found higher rates of food insecurity among support workers in nursing and residential care facilities compared to health care workers and the general population.

Discussion and implications

The findings of this study show a dire situation for residential care workers in the UK, with over a quarter living in or on the brink of poverty, 1 in 10 experiencing food insecurity, and 1 in 8 children of residential care workers experiencing material deprivation. These numbers likely understate the financial hardship in the social care workforce, as they do not cover home care workers who often face additional challenges such as not being paid for travel between people's homes and do not account for recent increases in the cost of living that have disproportionately affected poorer households.

 For many people providing social care in the UK, work is not a reliable route out of poverty, partly due to low pay, part-time working patterns, and insecure employment conditions. The prevalence of poverty and deprivation in residential care is similar to other low-paid sectors such as hospitality, retail, and administration. However, the residential care workforce is considerably older than these groups, and high poverty rates for their age may be partly shaped by a lack of opportunities for progression and poor reward for more senior roles. Additionally, the study found wide inequalities between health and social care staff, with residential care workers being at least twice as likely to experience poverty and food insecurity than health workers and dependent children of residential care workers being nearly four times as likely to experience material deprivation than children of health workers.

 To improve jobs in social care and address these issues, the government must take action to increase pay and improve working conditions. This will require significant additional investment and measures to ensure that extra funding for social care reaches staff, such as introducing a sector-specific wage or a national pay scale. As the population grows and ages, there may be a need for as many as 600,000 additional social care workers in England by 2030/31, and improving pay and conditions will be crucial to attracting more staff.

 However, addressing poverty and deprivation in the UK will also require broader policy action beyond social care, including on housing, education, and training, and social security. Improving access to affordable housing,

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