State-subsidised childcare is not the way to help harassed parents
Donna Hartnett struck a chord when she wrote a letter to this paper describing the strain of hauling her children out of bed at 6.30am, placing them in day-care, racing off to work, racing back to collect the children and then being able to spend only a short amount of time with them at home before it was time to start all over again.
One of the policies Donna favours for parents like herself is State-subsidised childcare. But no matter how much the State pays for childcare, it is never going to solve the problem of having to drag your children out of bed at an ungodly hour and then having to spend almost the entire waking day away from them. The only thing which can solve that problem is a set of policies that makes it easier for parents to spend more time at home with their children, especially when they are very young.
INM, in conjunction with Today FM, commissioned a survey of people aged between 20 and 49 and one of the subjects it asked them about was childcare. It found that just over half of 20-49-year-olds have dependent children and of these, 41pc pay for childcare. The average monthly amount they pay is €456.57. What we don't know is what age the dependent children are. There is a big difference between a two- year-old dependent child and one who is 16 and can fend for themselves for a couple of hours before their parents get home from work.
If the survey had asked those with children under five years of age if they were paying for childcare, the 41pc might have climbed to 61pc. But even this wouldn't tell the whole story because it is commonly the case that even women who are full-time at home put their toddlers in the local Montessori for a few hours so that they can get on with other things and because they want their children to socialise.
Those women are not putting their children into childcare because they have to but because they want to.
In lots of the debates it is simply assumed that most parents want to place their children in childcare and therefore want the State to subsidise it. This is a false assumption. Two years ago when 'Prime Time' aired its expose of what is happening in some of our crèches, the Iona Institute (which I head) commissioned a survey of attitudes to childcare from Amarach Research.
It asked people what their preferred childcare arrangement is for children under five. Only 17pc said it is a "day care centre such as a crèche". The rest said children should be looked after at home by one or other parent (49pc) or by a relative. Less than one in five people think crèches are the best places for small children. This being so, why is it always assumed that practically everyone with young children wants to put them in day care when it simply isn't so?
In a supplementary question, people were asked whether it would be better for the State to help parents through increasing Child Benefit or subsidising day care - 62pc would prefer to see Child Benefit increased. This is the obvious way to help mothers like Donna Hartnett. Giving the money directly to parents allows them to subsidise either the choice to stay at home, or to put their children in day care. Subsidising day care favours parents who want to put their children into crèches over parents who want to look after their children at home.
The Irish Independent survey also revealed that a quarter of thirtysomethings are delaying having children because of financial pressures. Once again, subsidised child care is not the answer. Direct payment to the parents is the answer, or failing that, tax cuts for families with children.
If the tax code that existed in 1974 existed today, a family on €65,000 per annum would be €3,500 better off. That's because the tax code back in 1974 took much better account of dependent children and a stay-at-home spouse. The likes of the OECD is constantly telling us to make childcare more affordable through direct subsidises. Why does it never recommend making direct payments to parents? The answer is that they don't want people staying at home looking after their children, they want them working because that swells the tax coffers of the State.
The Irish Government is clearly on the side of the OECD in this. Ministers are in favour of State-subsidised childcare and the supposed benefits of 'early education' which in reality tend to fade over time, except when the children are from very disadvantaged homes.
It is amazing to see how the old adage, "a woman's place is in the home" has completely transformed into "a woman's place is at work and a child's place is in day care".
The old attitude was authoritarian and the new attitude is equally so. Donna Hartnett's family aren't simply the victims of a recession and new taxes. They are also the victims of a philosophy that actively frowns on the desire to mind children at home.
To repeat, the best and fairest way to help people like Ms Hartnett is to either increase tax credits for families or to increase Child Benefit when economic conditions allow. Families can then spend the extra cash as they see fit, either on childcare or on looking after the children at home.
This is the way to help thirtysomethings who are struggling with the cost of bringing up children.