Breda O’Brien: New Government but same line on childcare

It is the triump of ideology over what parents want, which is to look after children at home

Indpendent TD Katherine Zappone is now seeing her preferred model of childcare, that is, direct payments to childcare providers, being implemented.Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Indpendent TD Katherine Zappone is now seeing her preferred model of childcare, that is, direct payments to childcare providers, being implemented.Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Read quickly, the draft partnership programme for government appears to signal a shift in childcare policy. After all, promising “targeted supports to reduce childcare costs, broaden parental choice and increase supports for stay-at-home parents” sounds good, doesn’t it?

One would imagine that broadening parental choice would mean corralling parents neither into full-time day care for their children nor at-home care but rather giving them a choice between the two.

Unfortunately, it means no such thing. Instead, it means continuing policies, in place for nearly two decades, that prioritise paid work outside the home over caring work.

Take, for example, the disincentives for two-parent families where one wishes to stay at home, introduced in Charlie McCreevy’s budget in 2000. The policy of tax individualisation means that in households with equivalent income, above a certain limit the single-income household pays far more tax than where both people are working outside the home.

At that time, Joan Burton described it as unjust, stating that it was no wonder that single-income families felt that the State had it in for them.

Incentives for paid work

For a single-income family with one person at home, there is a promise to increase the home carer’s credit, which was a sop to soften some of the harshness of tax individualisation.

However, the extent of the gap between single-income and dual-income families is shown by Michael Noonan’s answer to a parliamentary question last January.

Noonan said individualisation had “bedded into the tax system to a degree where it cannot be changed easily”. He continued: “It was estimated last year that to complete or to reverse individualisation would cost in the region of €800 million.”

So any claims to broaden parental choice are window dressing. Instead, in a rerun of what has happened since the time of Tony Gregory, when Independents had disproportionate influence, Katherine Zappone is now seeing her preferred model of childcare – direct payments to childcare providers – being implemented.

The organisation she co-founded, An Cosán, runs nine not-for-profit childcare centres. The website declares that, as a side benefit, parents can return to work or education.

Affordable childcare is a worthy aim, provided that it is high quality, but the two are not as easy to combine as one might think. And if childcare is made affordable by reducing to zero the possibility that parents can spend significant amounts of time raising their own children (unless those parents are wealthy) then we have the triumph of ideology over what parents really want.

A 2013 Amárach Research opinion poll found just 17 per cent of people see childcare as the preferred option for children under five years. Nearly half think the preferred option for children in this age group is to be looked after by a parent at home; and a quarter think the best option is to be looked after by another family member such as a grandparent. The rest did not express an opinion.

In addition, the poll found 62 per cent of people want State help to be provided to families in the form of a direct payment such as child benefit. Just 30 per cent want extra money allocated to childcare instead.

Perhaps the advent of a free childcare year might have changed people’s opinions? Interestingly, the Brookings Institute, a US think tank, said recently that research shows boosting family income leads to better outcomes than a free Pre-K year for all four-year-olds. (Pre-K is a pre-kindergarten programme designed to promote school readiness.)

Grover J Whitehurst, senior fellow at the Brookings Center on Children, looks at, for example, one Norwegian study where parents who had already chosen childcare outside the home and paid their part of it were given a supplement that functioned as a boost to family income. It was modest, about $1,500 a year. But it improved grade point average and oral exams scores for the children involved, had a positive impact on older siblings as well, and people in receipt of it earned more in the following years.

More autonomy

Supporting families financially makes sense. It makes even more sense if it allows more autonomy. Norway’s children are virtually all in childcare after the age of one. But pushing both parents into the paid workforce here was one reason house prices went through the roof, with predictably dreadful consequences.

Any new government will be under tremendous strain from the beginning. It would be wonderful to think there will be a real shift in values, but when it comes to childcare and many other issues it looks like politics as usual.

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