Sunday 20 October 2019

New childcare subsidy will do little to really help women return to work

Katherine Zappone has introduced a childcare grant, but Sarah Carey argues her goals to help the poor risk being undone and will do little to help women back to work

Children and Youth Affairs Minister Katherine Zappone Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Children and Youth Affairs Minister Katherine Zappone Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Sarah Carey

The population's political preferences are often categorised on spectrums, ranging from Left to Right or liberal to conservative. But when it comes to the Irish, choice is a more useful indicator of political feeling. Irish people want to choose their schools, hospitals, transport, homes and all manner of services that our relatively content socialist friends on the continent cheerfully agree should be publicly provided.

This passion for individual choice explains why we have our two-tier hospital system; GPs' practices run as small businesses; a plethora of school types to satisfy everyone's cultural whims; a love affair with cars; a gazillion one-off houses; and - despite the housing shortage - a refusal rate for social housing that, at one point in Cork City, hit 60pc.

This every-man-for-himself approach results in poorer outcomes for almost everyone (been on the M50 recently?), but is still largely brushed aside by the individual's conviction that, as long as they can afford to buy what hasn't been provided, they'll be okay.

Don't even think about blaming politicians for this. The system accurately reflects the will of the people. For example, imagine if Richard Bruton announced tomorrow that Ireland was going to follow the Finnish model and close one-third of our national schools and force all pupils into large schools, with a single state- patronage model, but with trained-up teachers and better facilities. The fact that this model brought Finland from the bottom to the top of OECD educational league tables would be completely ignored in favour of a hysterical revolution, the clarion cry of which would be: "Choice!"

So it is with childcare, and why Katherine Zappone is wading into politically dangerous waters by increasing state subsidies for childcare - but only for Tusla-registered providers, which, in effect, means only for creches. She has begun gingerly and is rightly targeting low-income families, but in political and practical terms, there be dragons ahead.

I see three problems with the strategy.

First, the politics. Until now, the cry of the middle-class lobbyists in the media, and National Women's Council, for cheaper childcare has largely fallen on the deaf years of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ministers who know that what most Irish parents prefer is a generous Child Benefit payment. At a cost of €2bn per year, direct payments allow for the sacred choice.

It means that a family can choose for one parent to stay at home, to pay a childminder or to give a few quid to granny. Sure enough, it was the stay-at-home issue that most exercised callers to Liveline the day after the Budget.

It makes the point - yet again - that there is little economic value, and hence, little status, for the stay-at-home-parent. As someone who is mostly based at home, I understand keenly this point of view. That work has huge social as well as monetary value, because these are also the parents who are digging out the working parents with ad-hoc play dates and pick-ups. They're keeping the schools going with voluntary work. They're often helping with the elderly too and generally holding the community together while everyone else is in an office.

When you explicitly state that the purpose is to "get more women into the workplace" - like that's the default best option - you're well down the runway of political alienation and resentment. If the funding scales tip from direct payments to subsidised childcare, it's kicking the backbone of society in the teeth.

Second: there's the equality problem. I understand where Zappone is coming from by targeting the subsidy at low-income families. Her background is in early education so she knows that early years care and education can have the single biggest impact in improving outcomes for the less well off.

She had the option of focusing on geography rather than income by setting up free creches in disadvantaged areas. But then she'd miss poorer parents in our many small towns and villages. The problem is that by choosing income over location, her aim to target the poor will be easily sabotaged by the middle class. Just watch the pressure each subsequent government will be put under to raise that income threshold rather than increasing the size of the grant.

Increasing the grant size will help the low-income families. Increasing the threshold will widen the net. Guess which option will prove more politically popular? I predict future ministers will spread the fund more thinly to subsidise more people. It'll be like the time Labour abolished third-level fees. It didn't do that much for poor people down the country who still couldn't afford to pay city rents, but the kids of SoCoDu went to UCD for free.

The childcare grant will never be sufficient to pay for a year in childcare, but an increasing number of middle-class families will pick up a subsidy. Meanwhile, the poor, who would benefit more from direct service provision, will continue to be left behind.

But there's a third problem with the subsidy: using money to subsidise creche fees is viewing the obstacles to getting back to work through an incredibly narrow lens. I've been thinking about moving from part-time to full-time work, but when I sat down to work out the practicalities, one thing was absolutely clear - a creche was of no use at all to me.

My children are now starting secondary school and the baby is in primary school. There are two school runs in the morning and three in the afternoon. There are activities, forgotten lunches, sick days, 'training days' and holidays. At home, there's the cleaning, cooking and laundry - not to mention food shopping. Two days this week, I took in a relative's children when their childcare arrangements fell through.

If I went back to work full time, who'd be the stop gap? Who'd be my stop gap? And that's taking into account that even now, my parents' house is like Grand Central Station with grandchildren being dropped off and picked up constantly. And presumably, they'll die at some point. Then we're really screwed.

I don't need a creche. I need a wife. I need a driver with their own car; a cook and a cleaner. I need someone at home to organise and receive tradesmen, crack the homework whip, and be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the wider family. And that's before the failure to decorate the house adequately for Christmas is all my fault. Reducing the role of a stay-at-home parent to "child-minding" shows zero understanding of the work required to rear a child and run a house.

The bottom line is that if I have to outsource all the work I do now, a creche subsidy isn't just useless, it's existence would bug me. And so we're back to the Children's Allowance. While I can see the social dangers of putting choice above other priorities, let's reframe that as necessary flexibility.

However, a final word. If women are required in the workplace, what are employers doing to bring them back into the fold?

They could start by expecting that the fathers, not just the mothers, might have to drop everything from time to time. This burden is still not being shared fairly between men and women, nor between State and employer. The village is one thing, but companies have to rear the children too.

Sunday Independent

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