Couples caught in the poverty trap over the cost of childcare

Call for Government action on tax relief as families struggle to pay for childcare but can’t afford to work

Michelle Igoe with her children Aoibhinn (4), Caitlin (2), Alex (9 months) and Robert (6) at their home in Tuam, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Michelle Igoe with her children Aoibhinn (4), Caitlin (2), Alex (9 months) and Robert (6) at their home in Tuam, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

It’s summertime and the kids aren’t in creches, but parents are still paying for them. Childcare facilities often close for a two-week summer holiday but charge parents for one or both weeks. Likewise, when a child has to stay at home sick or a parent wants to keep a child at home at the last minute, the bill often keeps rolling. And given the Republic still has the highest birth rate in the EU, childcare-related costs are an issue for many people.

Michelle Igoe, who lives in Tuam, Co Galway, took her four kids out of creche for the summer to save money. She says that when her three youngest children were in a creche, she had to sign a contract saying they would be there five days a week. So even if they missed a day or two, she “still had to pay”. She also had to pay for bank holidays when the creche was closed. It was “five days no matter what”.

At that creche, Igoe also had to pay for her children’s sick days.

“If your child has a runny nose or eye, they can’t stay in creche. So you have to take a day off work and lose the day’s pay and still pay the creche,” she said.

When two of her kids got the chicken pox, they had to stay at home for three weeks, but she still had to pay crèche fees.

Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, a representative body for childminders, says paying for sick days is typical in most services.

When a child is sick, creches still need to stay open and pay overhead costs.

Bernie Griffiths, manager of Childminding Ireland, agrees that parents have to pay when their kids aren’t in creche because of business costs and workers’ salaries.

“Childminding Ireland and childminders in general are aware and sympathetic of the pressures on parents in respect of childcare costs which are paid from taxed income. This is a burning issue which must be addressed at government level sooner rather than later,” she said.

High prices According to Michelle, who works in a Montessori school, “there’s not really anything left over after childcare comes out of my paycheck. There’s not much left in the two wage packets after we pay for childcare, the mortgage, groceries and bills.”

Figures released by the European Commission last month revealed that Ireland has has some of the highest fees in the EU for early childhood education and care for children under three. According to OECD figures from earlier this year, Ireland is one of the two most expensive countries in the world for childcare, with the average family of two spending 40 per cent of the average wage on childcare costs.

Griffiths said that according to 2013 figures, the average fee for childcare nationally was €152 per child per week. For a two-child family, that amounts to almost €16,000 per year.

That is in line with the results of a study conducted by the Donegal Childcare Committee last year, which found that the average family with two children was paying €16,500 annually for full-time childcare.

“When you consider the average income in Donegal is €18,000, it’s clear that working families in our country have few or no choices,” said Avril McMonagle, manager of the committee, who added that mothers in the workforce were particularly impacted.

A problem for women

When the cost of care is so high, it becomes hard for women to earn enough money to cover their childcare bill. The Donegal study showed that costs were preventing some parents from returning to the workforce at all.

According to the research, a quarter of parents are in that situation. And for low income families, the numbers were even more stark: childcare costs prevented 56 per cent of parents from looking for a job.

“The cost of childcare is detrimental to women, and I have no idea why our Government is not tackling it. Families are making choices to give up employment, and this is affecting women predominantly,” says McMonagle.

She suggests that the State should consider adopting a policy to help reduce gender inequality like Scotland did only last week, when that government announced a scheme of tax relief on money spent on childcare.

Urban versus rural

When Michelle Igoe returns to work at the Montessori school this autumn, she will have to pay €2,000 in monthly childcare costs for her four kids.

“It’s very expensive, but I’m sure in Dublin it’s 10 times worse. I don’t know how people are affording it in Dublin. There are higher mortgages and bigger childcare bills, so people have to be struggling . . . childcare is another mortgage,” she says.

Teresa Heeney thinks “the evidence is very clear that childcare is more expensive in Dublin than in other places”.

McMonagle agrees. The Donegal report “showed a definite cost difference between Donegal and Dublin”.

Griffiths says that counties Dublin, Cork, Kildare, Galway and Wicklow “generally command higher fees” and cited market forces as a factor driving that trend.

Where does the money go?

The money isn’t going into staff pockets. Employees are “making minimum wage in most services”, says Heeney.

Michelle Igoe, who has worked in crèches herself, said that in her experience most staff make minimum wage or only slightly higher. Wages increase a little if a member of staff has a higher childcare qualification.

Despite the high prices, childminders’ incomes have actually gone down since 2008-2009, according to Bernie Griffiths.

“Reduced demand was the primary factor, arising from job losses, reduced working hours of parents and grandparents stepping in to provide some or all of the childcare. In recent times, there are clear signs that trend is reversing, albeit slowly, as the job market begins to recover,” she said.

Recent European figures show that Ireland and Slovakia are the only two countries in the EU where there is no minimum level of qualification for working with younger children.

Griffiths says that is changing and that new training requirements for workers in the early years sector have been established. The pace, however, has been slow due to inadequate investment.

Avril McMonagle has “no idea” why the Government isn’t tackling the issue of investment in childcare. But she thinks part of the reason is that parents aren’t really complaining. Prohibitively high childcare costs are a “temporary problem” only affecting families with kids under five. The expense isn’t as great once kids go to school.

“So no one’s kicking up much of a fuss because it’s a temporary situation. Then it becomes someone else’s problem,” she said. 

Creche out for summer and it doesn’t pay to work

When Michelle Igoe goes back to work at a Montessori school at the end of the summer, her monthly childcare bill is going to be €2,000. Add that to her €800 mortgage repayment, and there’s not much money left over at the end of the month.

Michelle, who lives in Tuam, Co Galway, has four kids under the age of six. She and her husband, a truck driver and mechanic, always wanted a big family “but four kids is enough”.

“If we have any more, it really wouldn’t be worth any of us going to work.”

She un-enrolled her kids from creche over the summer because she wanted the freedom of having them at home with her, and she thought it was a waste of money to keep them enrolled.

“Say it was a nice day, and I wanted to take them to the beach.

“I’d have to ring the creche and give a reason why I wasn’t bringing them in and then still pay for that day.”

She also says that even though she’s not earning a wage over the summer, she and her husband still have a bit more money to spend because they’re not paying for childcare.

“We can afford to take the kids places. Like last week, we took them to Bray to the aquarium for the day. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we were paying for a creche.”

They also wouldn’t have been able to put money aside for Christmas, which they’ve been able to do this summer. When she and her husband are both working, their wages are “completely gone” at the end of the month.

It makes her wonder whether it’s worth going back to work. “If we can survive a couple of weeks in the summer, could we survive all year round?”

Double whammy – when the kids are too sick for creche 

Mother of three Elizabeth Bolger thinks that one of the more difficult things working parents deal with is sick days. Children have to stay home from creche when they have an infectious illness.

When that happens, Elizabeth, who lives in Crumlin and works part-time as a programmes and training manager, has to juggle and rearrange her work obligations. Elizabeth likes to have a plan, and when her children need to stay at home sick, “you can’t plan for that”. Plus, parents have to pay for the day of creche care even when their child is at home.

Her kids have supportive grandparents who help out, but sometimes she has to pay for an alternative such as a local babysitter, which is a “double whammy” of childcare costs. It also means that she spends her extra money on a babysitter for a sick day rather than, for example, the occasional dinner out with her husband.

“Childcare costs are very high, and it takes a huge amount out of our income, so obviously any additional costs are very difficult. The children are the priority. What’s left in terms of disposable income becomes less and less,” says Elizabeth, who pays around €900 per month in part- time childcare for her three children.

Also, her creche closes down for a two-week summer holiday, and parents have to pay for one of the weeks.

Overall, though, she says she’s very happy with her creche, which provides a “great service”. And she understands why they need to charge for missed days to pay for staff and overhead costs. As for holidays, she thinks creche workers should be entitled to paid holidays like everyone else and understands why parents have to pay for that. She thinks the solution is subsidised childcare or tax credits. She’d like to see the State invest more in early childcare because children “are Ireland’s future”.

Part-time stepping stone to full-time job

Norma O’Neill is trying to get her career back on track after having two kids, but she is finding it hard to make enough money to justify paying for a childminder.

Before she had Conor (4) and Síofra (8 months), she worked as a production supervisor at a large multinational medical device company. She says it was “a very good job”.

Norma, who lives in Ardrahan, Co Galway, took two years off after Conor was born and went back to do contract work before having Síofra. Recently she went back to contract work two days a week. She started looking for childcare a few months ago and found a childminder, whom Norma pays €60 per day to come to the house and mind the two kids.

She would prefer to stay home and mind the children herself, but her family needs the extra money. She says that getting back into the work force is difficult enough already, but the cost of childcare makes it even worse.

“After time out on maternity leave you’ve missed however many salary increases, and when you go back, you’re almost starting from scratch again,” she says.

She says it’s very difficult to make ends meet. She and her husband bought a house just before the boom, and their mortgage repayments are “pretty high”. The money she earns working two days a week covers the basics, and “there’s nothing left over”.

Still, she’s persevering. She considers the job a stepping-stone to getting back into the work force, but part-time work isn’t financially viable for her in the long term. She’ll have to find another part-time consulting job eventually.

But it’s a Catch-22 situation. She needs to work full-time to pay all of her bills, but if she was working full-time her childcare costs “would be the equivalent of a mortgage”.

“We would be considered middle class, but we’d certainly be becoming the new poor,” she says.

And she realises that she’s in a better position than many working parents in Dublin.