Monday 22 December 2014

We need to make childcare tax deductible

With Ireland topping global childcare cost charts, it's time we tackled the problem, writes Carol Hunt

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

THEY DON’T COME CHEAP: Childcare is like a second mortgage
THEY DON’T COME CHEAP: Childcare is like a second mortgage

What we need to ask is 'why?' Why is Irish society so determined not to take any responsibility for either the care of children or the hundreds of thousands of people (mainly women) who sacrifice careers in order to stay home and mind them?

We all rolled our eyes and shook our heads when we heard last week that Ireland (along with the US) is the most expensive country in the world for childcare, according to a report by the OECD. The OECD average (for a family with two children) of 12 per cent of the average wage spent on childcare hits a whopping 40 per cent in Ireland.

But this isn't news. Since the days when women – reluctantly – were accorded the right to continue working after they were married, childcare has, with few and well-documented exceptions, remained their sole responsibility.

Over the years we've seen report after report confirming what we all know: Irish childcare costs are stratospheric. But up until the Celtic Tiger years, we didn't really complain about it so much. Why? Because until the property market exploded, a family could reasonably expect to fund the mortgage for a decent home on one working wage.

Then, the majority of women stayed at home and cared for the kids – it was the socially accepted thing to do. And the conservative powers that control this State wanted it to stay like this. They liked the sexes retaining their traditional roles: Daddy the provider, Mammy the carer. It maintained the status quo and ensured that the old power bases remained intact. "By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved," says the Constitution.

Gradually though, women began to assert their right to work outside the home, but the one thing they couldn't change was that they were the ones who had the babies. This is not an impediment to a career in most civilised countries. In Ireland, however, it is. And that's not by chance.

Because, while ostensibly insisting that we, as a European democracy, are endeavouring to do everything in our power to ensure we do not encourage gender discrimination, we cleverly refuse to implement two measures that would ensure employment equality.

First, we still have no paid paternity leave – unlike most other European countries – which immediately puts the responsibility for the care of children on to the mother and excludes the father. The second is that childcare costs are neither subsidised nor tax-deductible.

Up until now, successive governments haven't had to challenge the "traditional family values" brigade's opposition to any sort of tax relief or support for childcare because it was seen as a minority problem of well-off working women. And if they couldn't cope with the costs then they could just give up work. Tough.

But then came all that lending to two-income couples. It's what fuelled the property boom. Families needed two incomes to pay the mortgage on a tiny house in the middle of nowhere. Today that house is probably in negative equity, child number two has just been born and Mammy and Daddy are between a rock and a hard place; if they are to continue to pay the mortgage they need two salaries, but childcare will effectively take every penny of the second wage.

What to do? It's been reported that a quarter of parents can't return to work after maternity leave because of the cost of childcare – this rises to 56 per cent in families on low – incomes. Parents on social welfare have no incentive to return to work if everything they earn goes to the creche.

The quickest and simplest way to deal with this problem is to make childcare a tax- deductible expense. Then both parents can return to the workplace if they wish, the Exchequer will ultimately benefit from both their taxes and reduced social welfare pay-outs, the couple will be less likely to default on their mortgage, and we will have made Ireland a better place for the many families who are finding it hard to fight their way out of this recession.

So, why aren't we doing it?

Sunday Independent

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