Joyce Fegan: Childcare measure in budget is hardly a game-changer

Bringing the 50c an hour to €1.40 an hour is a big step, but the lived reality of doing paid work while rearing a family in Ireland is a complicated manoeuvring of many moving parts
Joyce Fegan: Childcare measure in budget is hardly a game-changer

The move from 50c an hour under the National Childcare Scheme to €1.40 an hour is not nothing, but it's far, far from a silver bullet. File Picture.

Living the day-to-day reality of childcare in Ireland is a bit like juggling several Rubik's Cubes you're simultaneously trying to solve.

Yesterday the suited-and-booted politicians of Dáil Éireann said parents were going to see an on-average 25% reduction in childcare costs. It sounds game-changing. Let's walk through that in the lived reality of your life.

The biggest news yesterday was that the non-means-tested 50c an hour you get towards your childcare under the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) has now gone up to €1.40 an hour. You can avail of this if your child is over 24 weeks and under 15, and in a Túsla-registered service.

If you were to grab a nearby pen and do one of those quick calculations on the back of a torn envelope, you'd see what it really means.

Say you have a one-year-old boy in full-time creche, 9am to 5pm, and that bill, without any help, comes to €1,150 a month — that 50c an hour would have taken €80 off it and brought your monthly fee down to €1,070.

With yesterday's news — bringing the 50c to €1.40, that €1,150 now comes down by €224 a month. Your new monthly bill for full-time childcare for one child is now €926.

At the end of 12 months you'll have an extra €1,728 in your wallet thanks to the move from 50c an hour under the NCS to €1.40 an hour. It's not nothing, but it's far, far from the silver bullet to smooth out the moving Rubik's cubes of Irish childcare.

Because that's just one child and just one scheme. What if you have two children, or three? Say the second child is two years old, and you've another €926 to pay a month, your new childcare bill is €1,852 for two children.

Let's say you've a third child, they're three-and-a-half and "are in ECCE", meaning receiving three free hours of childcare a day under the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme. Everything is great from 9am to midday, but then the fees kick back in. Nothing was announced yesterday in relation to the ECCE scheme, no additional hours.

There aren't many jobs that pay a liveable wage that you can do from about 9.15am to 11.45am (leaving room for an easy commute).

A patchwork scheme

Furthermore, once you hit preschool, many montessoris close their doors from 1pm or 2pm. If there are two parents in the home, and two parents in receipt of paid work, that means one of those jobs still needs to be part-time, unless you can find a place that does after-school care.

If you can't find a place that does after-school care, you're looking to minders, friends, grandparents, neighbours, and so on and so forth — none of whom qualify to receive the €1.40 an hour payment under the NCS scheme.

Childcare in Ireland, as every parent and supportive friend or relative knows, is a patchwork scheme.

Even when your child starts primary school, most junior infants finish before 2pm, again that's only part-time job hours, so you still need to bridge the childcare-gap hours from 2pm on. If you can work remotely, you might manage to supervise your five-year-old between Zoom meetings and deadlines.

And if you're not a remote worker and you do 9am-6pm in a supermarket, after-school childcare remains an issue even when your now school-going babies are out of nappies and hopefully sleeping through the night.

Bringing the 50c an hour to €1.40 an hour is a big step, but the lived reality of doing paid work while rearing a family in Ireland is a complicated manoeuvring of many moving parts. 

We need to look at the entire Rubik's cube when it comes to childcare, not just the coloured square called cost.

In Sweden, if your child is sick, you get paid to stay home with them for the day. It's based on your salary.

How many times since schools reopened this year have you nearly dropped the pot of spuds you were draining when you heard a nearby sniffle?

Bugs and viruses are part and parcel of childrearing the world over. But if you work an office job an hour from home, where flexibility isn't exactly part of the culture, what do you do when the sniffles arrive, the temperature starts to rise, and school isn't an option?

You could hope that one high-paid job could keep your family ticking over, and there's a second parent who runs the household free of charge and who can always step into the breach. The reality of this is far from common.

Parenting is messy work. Policy needs to reflect that.

'Lots of different pieces'

Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, said yesterday's 50c to €1.40 an hour change is "very real" for parents and "it's a recognition of the importance of care for children in their early years".

Meanwhile, the National Women's Council director Orla O'Connor told the Examiner that while they "strongly welcome" the move, "there are lots of different pieces" in the childcare equation, separate to costs. The NWC has called for the same investment to happen in the next two budgets if real change is to be achieved.

Real change comes down to responsibility.

Is the State finally going to take responsibility for childcare in Ireland, or are parents going to continue to single-handedly raise the next generation of teachers, carpenters, oncologists, and taxpayers?

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