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Care Workers Face Poverty as Vacancies Reach Record Levels

Vacancies in social care have increased by 55,000 in the past year – while poverty wages push people out of the sector, Sian Norris reports

Care workers take two elderly people out to enjoy the fresh air. Photo: Carolyn Jenkins/ Alamy


Vacancies in social care have increased by 55,000 in the past year – while low wages push people out of the sector, Sian Norris reports

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Over a quarter of care workers are living in, or on the brink of, poverty, according to research from the Health Foundation. 

The report also found one in 10 residential care workers experienced food insecurity, while one in eight children of residential care workers were ‘materially deprived’. This means they may not have access to essential resources such as fresh fruit and vegetables or adequate winter clothing.

These concerning figures perhaps go some way to explaining a worrying increase in job vacancies in the sector.

Data published by Skills for Care found that job vacancies have increased by 52% in the past year, hitting 165,000 open posts. The research authors found that the increase was “​​due to recruitment and retention difficulties in the sector rather than a decrease in demand”.

“Low pay means care workers are having no choice but to leave the sector, creating vacancies and adding pressure to those still working in care, adding to the vicious cycle,” said Councillor David Fothergill, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board.

“This latest report confirms what has been a worrying trend for some years, of persistently high staff turnover and vacancy rates in social care, adding further pressures onto already overstretched services,” he added. 

RevealedThe Pay Disparities in Social Care

Sian Norris

Women make up 82% of care workers and are paid a median hourly rate of £9.50 per hour. However, as this paper has reported, the sector has a clear gender pay gap, with male directors of care providers taking home pay packets and bonuses far greater than frontline staff. Workers are also more likely to be over-45, and 23% are black and minority ethnic. 

Mary-Ann Stephenson, CEO of the Women’s Budget Group told Byline Times: “Care work, labour that traditionally falls to women, is systemically undervalued. A huge proportion of the care that is crucial to a healthy functioning society goes unpaid and unrecognised. It is little surprise, then, that access to professional care services is limited and care workers are severely underpaid”.

Low Pay, High Value

During the pandemic, the majority-female social care workforce were celebrated as key workers, clapped on doorsteps across the nation. However, despite the importance of care workers to the nation’s health and economy, too many are struggling with in-work poverty. 

The Foundation’s data reveals how from 2017/18 and 2019/20, one in five residential care workers live in poverty – a rate higher than for all workers (12.5%) and healthcare workers (8.5%). A further 8.5% of workers were living just above the poverty line – workers who will now be struggling to make ends meet in the cost of living crisis. 

The data goes up to April 2020. Since then the care sector and wider society have experienced a range of crises which have worsened poverty, such as the pandemic, rising inflation and the cost of living crisis. 


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“For many people providing social care in the UK, work is not a reliable route out of poverty,” the Foundation writes. “This is partly shaped by low pay, part-time working patterns and insecure employment conditions”. Almost a quarter of social care workers are on zero hours contracts.

While low and insecure pay has become the norm across many jobs, including hospitality, delivery services, and academia, the Government has more influence on supporting care workers than it does in these generally privatised sectors. This is because levels of central government funding affect how much local authorities can pay care providers to deliver services, and how far many care providers can increase wages for staff. 

Social care has suffered underfunding over the past 12 years: when the pandemic hit in 2020, spending per person on adult social care services in England was lower in real terms than it had been in 2010. Current plans for workforce reform focus on learning and development, but have less to say on pay. 

“In England, 2.1 million people aged 65 and over require support with at least one activity of daily living,” said Stephenson. “Providing this care is a highly skilled job requiring both physical and emotional labour. Failure to support the workers providing this care leads to burnout and worse outcomes for those receiving care. Support and fair pay for care workers is a vital investment in social infrastructure”.

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