Officially, Ireland says children are a treasure but acts otherwise


In 1868 Frances Power Cobbe, an Irish writer and social reformer, wrote a paper called Criminals, idiots, women and minors, is the classification sound? At that time, dividing the population into two groups – men and everyone else – seemed normal.

Most large public and private buildings, such as airports and hotels, still have toilet facilities for two groups. Men get their own exclusive toilets while women’s include baby changing and feeding areas and, often, facilities for wheelchair users.

Politically correct public toilets are unisex for people of all ages and mobility. Look for them next time you are out and about and you might find a few.

Women and children are still seen as a unit by most sectors of Irish society. When Leo Varadkar said childcare will be taken into account in insolvency arrangements if the cost prevents parents from making their mortgage repayments, people assumed he was referring to women. This was a fair assumption.

In Ireland, women with children work fewer hours than men with children and earn less money. Nearly 80 per cent of men with children work a 40-hour week or more, whereas only 15 per cent of women with children do. Childcare costs are not seen as essential family expenditure, they are an optional luxury.

An essential public good
Childcare services are no luxury. They are an essential public good without which no country can claim that women and men are treated as equals.

Without affordable childcare, women do not work the same number of hours per week as men. Costs are much higher here than in all other EU countries.

An OECD study found that net childcare costs for a dual-earner family in Ireland are 45 per cent of the average wage. In Sweden and Denmark, net costs are only 8 per cent of average wages.

The overall EU cost is 15 per cent of average wages. Costs of childcare for single parents in Ireland are 52 per cent of family net income in comparison with 4 per cent in Finland.

EU countries have two main models of childcare: one heavily subsidised by the State and the other paid for by parents. The models are based on whether children are seen as a resource, an expensive lifestyle choice, or a burden if the mother is single.

When children are seen as a valuable resource, taxpayers pay for childcare. When children are seen as a burden, or a choice a couple should not make unless they can afford it, parents are expected to pay for childcare with very little help from the State.

In theory, Ireland espouses the notion of child as treasure; in practice the cost of childcare and lack of State-funded affordable services says otherwise.

Large mortgages
Prime Time featured childcare last week. The programme consisted of a trivial chat about costs with parents in the audience paying the equivalent of large mortgages every month (€1,100) to have two children minded on a part-time basis. Political ideologies behind different models were not debated.

The programme did not even define what childcare is and panellists and audience confused babysitting and the Free Pre-School Year (FPSY) for three to four year olds with childcare.

Childcare is a professional service for children from 0 to five years with after-
school facilities, so that all parents can work full-time if they want to. The FPSY scheme is not childcare. It is designed to prepare children for learning and consists of three hours, five days a week.

Although great for the child, FPSY can add to the childcare challenges of working parents as they have to drop children off in the morning and pick them up at lunchtime, thus disrupting the normal working day. Few workplaces, whether public or private, are this flexible.

Role of women
Low supplies of affordable childcare services reinforce the role of women as carers. The OECD 2012 report, Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now , notes that “if childcare eats up one wage and there is little or no financial gain in going out to work, parents (most often mothers) are less likely to seek a job”.

Ireland’s childcare model is unsustainable. Unless the Government decides to provide or heavily subsidise affordable high quality childcare, it is only a matter of time before women refuse to have any children or have only one child.

This will create huge social problems not least of which will be who will mind the mostly male (85 per cent) TDs in their old age.