Sunday 4 December 2016

Growing financial pains are putting paid to our traditional family sizes

John Cradden

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Big families are a thing of the past with the average Irish family now comprising 1.95 children - hardly enough to have a decent sing-song
Big families are a thing of the past with the average Irish family now comprising 1.95 children - hardly enough to have a decent sing-song

There's a bit of a baby boom at the moment - but the traditional large Irish family looks set to become a rare phenomenon in this modern age thanks to spiralling costs.

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According to CSO figures, Ireland had the highest birth rate in 2014 in the European Union. However, the fertility rate - the average expected number of children a woman is likely to have in her lifetime - has been falling. It reached a peak of 2.09 in 2010 before falling to 1.95 in 2014, and is projected to drop further to 1.8 by 2024.

While it's obviously not the whole story, there is strong evidence to show that many couples put off having more than two mainly because they feel they can't afford to. Laura Haugh - mum-in-residence at parenting forum Mummypages.ie - says the decision to have three or more is less a personal decision than a financial one, thanks to the high cost of childcare and poor maternity leave benefits.

"We used to be famous for large families here in Ireland, with families of five children or more commonplace, all living in modest houses, sharing bedrooms and indeed beds."

A look at the last census reveals that the numbers of families with four or more children has plummeted from over 102,257 in 1996 to 64,248 in 2011, even taking into account overall population growth.

Large families would have more easily cut their cloth to suit their measure as new members were added, but "nowadays many families still live in modest homes for their family size, trapped in negative equity starter apartment accommodation unable to move on to a more spacious home," said Ms Haugh.

"The aspiration for today's parents is to give each of their children their own bedroom and to be able to afford to give each child access to their extra-curricular activities they wish to do, bring them on family holidays and pay for third-level education."

A survey last year by health insurance firm GloHealth showed that nearly 70pc of parents spent over €500 a year on extra curricular activities for each child, with 60pc of them signing up their child for one or two activities a year. And if your children grow up wanting to study away from home, be prepared to help them fund the roughly €11,000 a year or €1,200 a month it costs to do that, according to a survey conducted last year by the DIT.

The Irish League of Credit Unions put the monthly average spend for students who live at home last year at just under €500 a month.

Of course, a more immediate financial burden created by extra children is the costs of childcare. An investigation last year by the Irish Independent showed that the national average bill for full day of childcare for two children at a creche for a year was more than €19,600 - though the average cost of creches in Dublin was almost €5,000 more than in rural areas.

A recent survey by MummyPages showed that 10pc of its members were basing their decision to add to their family on whether or not the Government introduces a childcare tax credit or subsidy for working parents, while two-thirds experienced financial difficulty while on maternity leave.

An estimated 20,000 families here have been using au pairs as a cheaper alternative to creches or full-time childminders. A full-time creche place for one child will cost around €200 a week, but a live-in au-pair can expect to be paid around €100-120 a week for 20 hours' work.

Many families will expect them to do far more than that but, following a recent case taken by a former Spanish au pair, the Workplace Relations Commission has ruled that au pairs are entitled to the same protections under Irish employment law as all other legally employed workers, which means you can't force them to work 30-40 hours a week and still only pay them €100 a week.

In terms of transport costs, the jump from two to three or more is also likely to prompt the purchase of a larger MPV-type car that is either wide enough to take three child seats across the rear bench or has six or seven seats in total.

And then there's the new bin charges. All waste collection operators must introduce a new pay-by-weight bin charging structure by July, which will see families with four people or fewer paying lower charges.

A household with five people (8.8pc of the total according to the 2011 Census) will pay approximately the same under pay-by-weight as under the flat rate, or pay-by-lift system, but those with six or more (4.5pc of the total, or more than 74,000) may see an increase in their costs.

Having said all that, few large families will publicly admit to any regrets about having more than 1.95 children and will struggle on by economising wherever they can, but it's easy to see why it's an agonising decision for many couples who want to extend their brood.

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