One of the lessons of the pandemic has been the breadth and depth of the caring in our community.
From the need for homeschooling to what happens when there aren't enough workers in hospitals or residential aged care facilities, to dealing with family members with mental health issues - COVID-19 laid bare just how dependent we are on those who look after us when we can't look after ourselves.
The "care economy" covers care across the course of life, including aged care, disability services, family services, social housing, mental health services, rural and remote care and social housing. It's likely that every one of us has needed at least one of these services, and at the very least knows how they can fail - as laid out in a multitude of royal commissions into how each different sector can be improved. Yet those in care, whatever its form, seem to remain wanting.
The main issue is that each of these areas is siloed from the other, despite clear overlaps and duplications. Breaking down the siloes of antiquated care systems - conceptually, in policy and in real-world practice - is a big culture change. The focus when it comes to care needs to be about the person and the quality of care, rather than merely cost alone.
As every one of these care sectors garners attention in the upcoming election - largely because they impact so many voters and because there is clearly so much that needs to be done - it's time to embrace both the term and the concept.
With more than 1.8 million workers, the care economy is the nation's single biggest employer, is the fastest-growing sector as measured by jobs growth, and employs more women than men.
Over the past few decades governments have taken charge of these services which, prior to that, were largely informally done by women or charitable institutions. But as the "ownership" of these areas starts to seep into the private sector, the parallel expectation that we all deserve to live in secure housing, free from violence, with access to healthcare as and when needed, must remain.
Central to the idea of the care economy is a shifting of the lens from seeing it as welfare and a drain on the economy, to an investment in people's wellbeing and productivity. It is a system that is as viable as any successful business or government enterprise. When the Productivity Commission reviewed in 2017 the then-proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme, it stated that a well-funded, effective system of disability support would pay for itself by increasing workforce participation by both carers and people with disability. The same conclusion was reached by Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence. So the care economy is not welfare, but is made up of programs that would at least pay for themselves - and at best generate federal or state income.
For generations, governments have been reactive to the mounting cost of caring in the community. In February, when the government announced an aged care workforce bonus of up to $800, this was at best a Band-Aid. Most care sectors, such as aged care, are struggling to keep their staff, and struggling to look after their residents. More quality standards and guidelines means more paperwork and administration, and even less actual care provision.
We need to break this cycle of periodically throwing money at the care sector, and instead transform it so it is innovative, sustainable, synergistic and run like what could be one of the nation's largest industries.
It's election season, and we are being offered tax cuts, new swimming pools in our local area, and better roads. What about the care economy? How many royal commissions do we need to know that all these services - mental health, aged care, disability - are simply not improving?
By reshaping the lens, we could create a program that looks after all Australians and pays for itself. Wouldn't that be a revolution?
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