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.