Recession is magnifying childcare problems facing working parents
Analysis:Childcare in Ireland is expensive, quality is variable, parental leave is short and the provision of after-school care is patchy. If demands from Barnardos and other groups for increased public investment echo a common refrain, the question arises as to why this has not gained political traction.
The easy answer is that the fallout from the economic crash crowds out most other issues. Still, the tide of rising taxation and declining or stagnant income serves to magnify the childcare problems confronting working parents.
Ireland fares badly by international standards. A 2007 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development* found that net childcare costs were highest in Ireland in the developed world while net income gains from work for dual-earner families using childcare were smallest in Ireland and Britain.
“In Ireland and the United Kingdom, the costs of childcare can be so high, that in the short term work does not pay for many second earners in couple families and this applies to sole-parent families in the Canadian province of Ontario, Ireland, France, and the city of Zürich in Switzerland,” the OECD said.
These findings are based on what are now old, out-of-date figures, but the central thrust of the conclusions still rings true. Survey findings by Barnardos, the National Women’s Council, lone parent group Open and childcare advocates Start Strong suggest as much.
“Many parents said that childcare costs stopped them going on holiday or buying treats for their children while others said that costs actually prevented them from taking up employment or moving from part-time to full-time work,” the four groups said yesterday.
Their solution is to boost childcare investment by no less than €2 billion per year, the sum they say is required to bring Irish childcare up to Scandinavian standards. According to the four groups, an annual increment of €280 million would be required to attain that level of investment by 2020.
These are enormous figures, all the more so when considered in the context of pressure on the Coalition to correct the fiscal deficit. With children’s allowance payments already in the sights of the budget cutters, the demand seems to be going in the opposite direction to the Government.
Yet childcare advocates argue that a €2 billion annual investment would yield a large economic return, more than offsetting the cost.
Is the Government listening at all? “The Minister is concerned about access and the affordability of childcare and she recognises the burden it places on working families,” said a spokesman for Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald.
The Minister’s aim right now is to introduce a second free year of pre-school care for all children. This would cost about the same again as the €175 million annual expense of the existing scheme. A further €88 million goes to a scheme to help defray childcare costs for parents taking up new low-income jobs. To jump from these kinds of figures to €2 billion would necessitate a revolution in the way the Government approaches this issue. Although Fitzgerald is working on a new “early years strategy” looking into this area, official thinking across the board is dominated by ever-present budgetary constraints.
There have been noble clarion calls for action in the past but parents are still expected to get on with it on their own.
*Babies and Bosses – Reconciling Work and Family Life (OECD)