Sunday 23 October 2016

Dearbhail McDonald: Men and women who want to have kids and work need more comprehensive support

Published 13/10/2016 | 02:30

Vision: Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Frank McGrath
Vision: Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Frank McGrath

It was the priest Laocoon in Virgil's 'Aeneid' who was the lone voice amongst the Trojans who distrusted the Greeks.

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"I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts," said the priest, who warned against accepting the Greeks' gifts and letting their horse into Troy.

For his prescience, Laocoon and his sons were killed by serpents sent by the gods, a classic case of shooting the messenger.

The new affordable childcare scheme introduced by children's minister Katherine Zappone is no Trojan Horse.

The centrepiece of an otherwise fairly visionless Budget, Ms Zappone's childcare scheme has been hailed as 'a breakthrough' by many, especially those advocating on behalf of low-income families.

It is certainly a big step forward for the sisters and the fight for workplace diversity.

But we should not be blind to the fact that as well as helping parents in the low and no-income families by subsidising childcare to the tune of €8,000 a year, the underlying policy goal of this crude, infant scheme is to get more childbearing women into the workplace to improve our economic competitiveness.

As well as some of the highest childcare costs in Europe, Ireland - which has the second highest direct payments to parents of any OECD country because of our universal child benefit scheme - has one of the lowest female labour market participation rates in the eurozone. The phenomena are inextricably linked.

The second earner in Ireland (typically the woman) loses 92pc of her income to tax and childcare policies according to business lobby group Ibec, which wants to means test child benefit and explore a tax saver childcare voucher model to keep mam and dad at work.

Why would any second earner, male or female, want to work for a mere 8pc?

The reasons for lower market participation by women in Ireland are varied and complex and not helped by the fact that childcare and care of the elderly and sick is still regarded by employers and society alike as quintessentially a woman's issue.

Ms Zappone is to be commended for her vision and courage in trying to tackle our childcare/labour market participation challenges. She had to start somewhere and where better to start than targeting the parents of an estimated 136,000 children living in conditions of poverty?

But the childcare scheme, which is not income-progressive, has its flaws. The cut-off point for eligibility (anyone above a net household income of €47,500 will receive a maximum of €900 a year) has led to accusations that middle-income families with incomes just above the threshold will be unfairly penalised.

The squeezed middle getting squeezed. Again.

Ms Zappone is conscious of the criticism and says she wants to increase the threshold in the coming years.

But what we are really lacking is a dynamic conversation and vision about family and work.

Everyone has an agenda when it comes to childcare and caregiving and there are few issues that divide women as much as the so-called 'motherhood penalty'.

Like many countries, Ireland - which frequently tops the European fertility league - is experiencing decreasing birth rates and an ageing population.

In short, ladies, our (predominantly male) policymakers need us to provide the brood - and the butter. We shouldn't refuse Budget 2017's childcare gift.

But we should insist on more comprehensive policies that support women and men who want to have children - and work.

Irish Independent

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