The value of unpaid welfare services provided in households was $28.8 billion in 2000-01, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's biennial report on the nation's welfare services, released today.
This was over double the $13.7 billion spent annually on paid services in the welfare sector in Australia.
The $28.8 billion covers informal assistance, mostly by family and friends, in caring for other people's children, one's own sick children, people with a disability and frail older people.
The report, Australia's Welfare 2003, reveals that about 2.5 million people provided unpaid care to people with a disability and frail older people in 2002. Of these about 491,000 were defined as primary carers-carers who are the main providers of assistance to people with self-care, mobility and communication difficulties.
The full-time equivalent workforce providing informal care was estimated at 985,000 in 2000-01, or about five times the size of the paid workforce in the community services industry.
AIHW Welfare Division Head Dr Diane Gibson said that for many people, taking on the caring role was 'a natural expression of their relationship with a family member or friend in a time of need'.
'But we would be placing our heads in the sand if we did not admit that while caring can be very rewarding, the role can also impose a considerable burden', Dr Gibson said.
'Many carers are also juggling paid work and caring responsibilities-one in three female carers are in the paid work force.'
People are already supported in their caring role through both financial and other forms of assistance (e.g. respite care) provided by governments and non-government organisations.
Dr Gibson said, however, that in order for Australians to meet one another's welfare needs in the future, a stronger evidence base was required that painted a more complete picture of the varied needs and circumstances of carers and care recipients.
'So many things are changing in our society, all of which can affect the need for and provision of informal care. Women are more likely to work, people marry later, and have fewer children later. Blended families are more common, and families are more mobile. And the ageing experience is changing-retirement used to mean that you went from full-time paid work to not working at all, but the division is becoming more blurred, with high rates of part-time employment and self-employment, both before and after traditional retirement age.'
'Support for carers that aligns with these changes and individual needs will help maintain the in-home care people generally prefer, while avoiding unnecessary increases in the number of formal paid services.'