As someone who has just returned to work after maternity leave, paying a mortgage-sized monthly bill for the privilege of leaving my two young children into creche, the ESRI study that shows childcare costs are lowering employment rates among mothers came as no surprise.
The only surprise is that parents aren’t marching on the streets. But I guess we’re all too busy and tired from keeping the wheels turning and holding it all together.
Paying a significant portion of your wages in childcare fees is part of the deal when you become a parent. Paying out already taxed income for what is a work expense feels like punishment. Why is it I can get a tax-free annual train tickets but not tax-free childcare?
The ESRI study links childcare costs with women leaving their jobs and working less. I have worked many years to progress my career and have a job I love. But at the end of the month, when more than half your salary has gone to pay childcare fees, when you’ve spent more time with colleagues than with your children, you seriously ask, is this worth it?
The Government has made some moves towards easing the burden with the universal scheme for babies and toddlers and the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme for pre-schoolers. But these only cover 10-20 per cent of fees in Dublin, only apply to registered childcare (a high bar with fierce demand for places) and anecdotally most of the subsidies are being negated by rising fees.
There appears to be a reluctance to recognise childcare as a work expense. Perhaps it comes from the mindset of a country whose Constitution, for now, recognises a woman’s life within the home. But there seems to be a political fear of offending and undermining stay-at-home parents. The ECCE scheme providing three free preschool hours a day for all parents, working or not, is welcome and important for child development. But that is education. The working day is far longer and the rest of the day’s childcare should be seen as a work expense.
This issue is not about pitting stay-at-home against working parents. Both make their choices and should have that right to choose. This is about parents who choose or need to work outside the home being financially burdened, being disincentivised to work at a key time in their careers and at their most economically productive time.
While it is an issue for both parents, the ESRI study focuses on women who traditionally have greater push factors to stay at home due to lower wages and the natural break already provided by maternity leave (and lack of significant paid paternity leave). Any significant break in employment for women will only increase this inequality.
This issue is becoming more pressing as the age of women having their first baby has risen to over 30. A ticking fertility clock means many families are squeezed into a smaller time-window. So more families have more than one child in full -time childcare at the same time. The ESRI study notes an increased burden for families with more than one child. Indeed the financial burden may also discourage parents from having more children. Do we really want our nation’s fertility rate determined by this?
There are many solutions – State-backed childcare facilities, incentives for childcare facilities to be set up to balance supply and demand (and reduce prices), more flexible working and parental leave options for parents? In the short-term perhaps we can recognise childcare as a non-taxable work expense while looking at ways to increase supply. Or are we to become a country which recognises a parent’s place is not within the office?
Genevieve Carbery is assistant news editor with The Irish Times