Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Income Support for Australian Carers since 1983: Social Justice, Social Investment and the Cloak of Gender Neutrality

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Income Support for Australian Carers since 1983: Social Justice, Social Investment and the Cloak of Gender Neutrality

Article excerpt


A dedicated income support payment for 'unpaid carers'--individuals providing unpaid or 'informal' care for a child or adult with a disability, illness or age-related frailty--has been available in Australia since the 1980s. This article examines the history of this social security payment by tracing changes to the eligibility criteria in the social security legislation and examining the way those changes have been discursively framed. The analysis reveals changed understandings of the purpose of income support and the basis on which people should receive it. It draws on Fiona Williams' argument (2010) that European care policies have been framed by policy-makers in terms of two overlapping discourses: social justice and social investment. We argue that these discursive frames have also dominated Australian income support policy for carers. In early iterations of caters' income support policy, the policy's stated purposes related mainly to social justice aims, such as the recognition of the value of unpaid care and the provision of social support given the 'burdensome' nature of the caring role. However, more recent policy changes have seen a greater emphasis on social investment in caters' human capital, whereby carers are encouraged to maintain a connection with the paid workforce to facilitate their future workforce participation and financial stability.

Unpaid carets have made significant gains through claims for income support framed by both the social justice and social investment discourses. However, gender equality has been notably absent from both discourses. This is problematic because informal caring continues to be gendered, with women constituting 68 per cent of 'primary carers', that is, those who provide 'the majority of the informal help needed by a person with a disability or aged 60 years or over' (ABS 2010: 3). The predominance of female carers during the 'working years' is particularly striking, and this responsibility for unpaid care can have significant impacts on women's short and long-term financial security (Bittman et al. 2007; Cass & Yeandle 2009). By encouraging and supporting care by family members in the home in gender-neutral terms, income support policy obscures--or at least does not challenge--this gender inequality.

The gendered impacts of income support policy have been further complicated by the increasing emphasis on social investment in recent years. The policy now simultaneously encourages unpaid caring in the home and promotes (and increasingly requires) carers' participation in the labour force in order to achieve social inclusion and financial security (Bittman et al. 2007). While the expectation that women will engage in paid work is consistent with feminist claims for equality in that domain, Australian women are still more likely to be unpaid carers despite increasing involvement in paid work (ABS 2010).

There has been a great deal of political interest in disability and aged care issues in recent years, demonstrated by the announcement of a range of policy reforms and reviews, including a National Disability Insurance Scheme and a National Carer Recognition Framework (see for example FAHCSIA 2008a; Cass et al. 2011; Productivity Commission 2011a). This presents an opportunity to revisit the persistent gender inequality in unpaid caring to ensure that women's obligations to both care and work do not lead to greater disadvantage and inequality for women, and the people for whom they care.

Claiming and framing of care policies

In an analysis of the interpretation, negotiation and recognition of different care needs in European care policies, Williams identifies two discourses--social justice and social investment--as 'overlapping but competing ways of interpreting care needs' (2010: 5). Williams argues that various groups making claims in relation to care, including parents of young children and unpaid carers, have drawn heavily on a social justice discourse. …

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