Childcare subsidy must benefit working and stay-at-home parents

IMAGINE, for a moment, the following scenario. The Government announces that it will subsidise families where one parent stays at home to mind young children.

This measure, the press release says, reflects the view that home-based care is “better on balance” for children.

Can’t you just imagine the howls of outrage? How dare the Government interfere, people would protest, with the right of parents to decide how best to care for their children?

And what about the inequality in the proposal - funding families where one parent chooses to stay at home but penalising those where both parents work and avail of childcare services? The objectors would have a point. Yet there is a serious possibility that precisely the opposite injustice will be inflicted at the next budget.

“Childcare has moved to the top of the agenda,” we are being told. “It’s going to be a big issue at the next election,” backbenchers are heard to fret.

Yes, but what kind of childcare? The Government may be tempted to subsidise childcare provision either by giving tax relief on income spent on childcare or by funding childcare facilities directly. It certainly looks like the ducks are being lined up in a neat row. In August, we had the small businesses’ lobby group, ISME, calling for employers to be allowed to provide tax-deductible subsidies to employees for the specific provision of childcare. The lack of women returning to work was “having a serious impact on the economy’s labour supply,” ISME said.

Then this month, we had the National Women’s Council calling for universal education for three- and four-year-olds, and for subsidised full day care for all one-to-two year-olds by 2010.

But most interesting, perhaps, was the Fianna Fáil think-in in Cavan.

There we had the chairwoman of the National Economic and Social Forum, psychologist Maureen Gaffney, reassuring us that the argument about childcare was now ‘settled.’ She quoted the most up-to-date research from the US-based National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), which showed that the proportion of children in childcare with secure emotional attachment was exactly the same (62%) as that of children reared at home by their mothers. However, it seems the same study also found that longer hours in childcare resulted in less harmonious mother/infant interaction and less sensitive mothering at 6, 15, 24 and 36 months of age, even allowing for differences in childcare quality and other family variables.

What we can say with certainty about childcare is that it is here to stay.

Economic considerations often require both parents to work outside the home.

Also, more women want career fulfilment and they will choose to balance work commitments with family life.

Hopefully, it will come as a relief to parents that one particular fear they had about the effects of childcare is without foundation. We can say that childcare, of itself, does not affect the quality of children’s relationship with their mothers, providing the maternal relationship is sensitive. However, if parents have not bonded well with their child and have an insecure attachment with them, says child clinical psychologist Anne O’Connor, “then childcare can have a detrimental effect, particularly if the quality of care given is of a poor standard.”

The main downside of childcare, it seems, is that it can make a bad situation worse. “The effects of childcare on attachment depend primarily on the nature of the ongoing interactions between mother and child,” says Maureen Gaffney. The problem with this observation is that it is pleasantly reassuring to all those parents who regard themselves as having good parenting skills. Which must be nearly everyone.

What mother would regard herself as ‘insensitive’ - to use the term cited by Gaffney from the research? Thus public concerns about childcare are being allayed because everyone regards themselves as being in the cohort whose children will not be negatively affected by long periods of time in childcare.

But those of us who have the job of commenting on these issues, or making policy that affects people’s lives and finances, must ask some questions.

First, if the Government proposes to spend large wads of money (directly or indirectly) on childcare, will this allocation of resources distinguish between families which will not be negatively affected by childcare and those which might? Self-evidently not. Nobody wants a health board official or community welfare officer deciding that certain children would be negatively affected by childcare and should not be funded.

SECOND, will Government investment guarantee high quality childcare so as to mitigate the negative effects which low quality services can have on the development of some children? Research from Australia suggests not.

Although the Australian government was subsidising 60% of childcare costs in 1999, one study found that mediocrity in the provision of childcare was more prevalent than excellence. An assessment of half of Australia’s 2,400 childcare centres showed that 13% failed the national accreditation and 40% only achieved the minimal standard. There were frequent inadequacies in areas such as child management, safety, health, and nutrition.

Third, is the most important issue being addressed? We have psychologists reassuring us that childcare doesn’t harm the child’s bond with mummy and daddy. We have spokespeople from IBEC and ISME pushing their business agenda, which involves getting women out to work and getting children to spend longer hours in school-like facilities.

We have the National Women’s Council advancing what can neutrally be described as a feminist cause - they want to increase the percentage of women in paid employment. But who is speaking up for what children need and want? What about their quality of life and their right to the society of their parents?

Fourth, if the Government subsidises childcare, how will this benefit those families who are willing to take the economic hit of sacrificing an income - so as to provide their own childcare? Aren’t those families entitled to parity of esteem? Indeed, doesn’t our constitution, with its rather gender-specific but nonetheless extant guarantee to mothers in the home, suggest that, at the very least, one-income families should be treated equally?

Fifth, what will any of this do to revive community life - that other great theme of FF’s Cavan conference? More money on childcare won’t shorten the parental commute by one inch. It will not add one minute to the home life of a stressed mother or father. It will simply put more money into parents’ pockets to spend during their normal life, if they have any.

It seems obvious that any use of state funds for childcare must be fairly distributed between those who sacrifice an income to bring up their children and those who go out to work and use childcare. To do anything else would be to sacrifice children to an economic - or some other - ideology. We rightly condemn the old Ireland for having snatched babies from the arms of their mothers and putting them into homes. What will we say in future years of a policy that would snatch parents from the arms of their children? Hopefully common sense will prevail.

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