VICTORIA WHITE: €2 an hour for childcare puts parents on a wage of €2 an hour

We haven’t heard a word so far from the Coalition about turning the economy around to value the work of caring for children, writes Victoria White

TWO euro an hour. That’s what a child is worth as the Coalition’s general election campaign kicks off in this centenary year of 2016.

The pledge, to be achieved by 2021, came from the Labour Party but Fine Gael is presumably singing off the same hymn sheet, promising to cut annual childcare costs by €2,000 for children between nine months and three years, to bridge” the gap between the end of maternity leave and the start of the ECCE preschool scheme.

Pity the babies on that particular “bridge”. Because we haven’t heard a word so far from the Coalition about turning the economy around to value the work of caring for children. It’s all about the price. Labour is “Standing up for Working Families”, a slogan culled from would-be US president, John Edwards.

Families which aren’t working are the ones in which both parents don’t go out to work. Or families with a single parent who doesn’t go out to work. You know, all those families who sit around the telly all day smoking cigarettes. Or used to, until they were forcibly ejected onto the streets to look for work when the Coalition cut off the one family payment to single parents whose youngest child is seven.

We haven’t heard a word yet from Labour or Fine Gael about changing the regulations on childcare from the eye-view of a young child: A requirement that each child would have “key workers” and that staff changes would be kept to a minimum or a reduction in the ratio of workers to children.

No, cheap as chips is what matters. Daubed in the ketchup of all the usual half-truths and untruths, such as the idea that if children don’t go to formal childcare they will not progress educationally. The investment will “repay itself”, says Labour, “in terms of increased participation in the workforce by parents, particularly mothers, and enhanced opportunities and outcomes for children.” None of this stands up to any examination. Outcomes for young children will not be enhanced by being in crèche 40 hours a week rather than in the care of their mothers. On the contrary, outcomes may be worse, particularly as the Coalition’s provision is so far limited to centre-based care.

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Here there is some difference between the parties. Fianna Fáil’s childcare support credit is banded according to parent’s income and explicitly applies to childminders and relatives. Sinn Féin suggests regulating and supporting childminders on a par with centre-based care and with the Social Democrats, who also have banded supports, extend the community childcare subvention to childminders.

But the provision of cheap childcare is not the main factor in determining mothers’ work rate anywhere. The US, with little State childcare has higher employment rates for mothers than well-resourced Germany and France but lower employment rates than poorly-resourced Portugal which has a strong tradition of women working and where seasonal work is available.

The evidence doesn’t matter while everyone is singing along. The supposedly left-wing Sinn Féin, which has some great policies on, childcare such as providing 1,000 SNAs to the preschool scheme and providing, incrementally, a year of shared leave to parents on the birth of a child, quotes — of all sources — the OECD on the importance of childcare places allowing a mother be “a positive component of economic growth”. It was the OECD which called a mother working in the home “a waste of human capital” and suggested limiting the payment of child benefit to women who work outside the home.

Expect thousands of words on these themes in the next three weeks with absolutely no reference to any evidence, even to our own National Longitudinal Study which recently reported that the type of childcare a child has at age three did not affect children’s cognitive ability at age five in the slightest. When Fine Gael Minister for Children James Reilly launched the report he seemed to launch a fiction of his own making with the declaration that it supported “the Government’s policy direction” showing particular benefits for disadvantaged children from preschool education.

It did report minor improvements in vocabulary from centre based care in children whose first language wasn’t English; there were “statistically marginal” cognitive advantages in children whose crèche had a graduate leader; but children who spent over 30 hours a week in crèche had slightly less vocabulary than those who were at home.

So that’s why we need to fund 40 hours a week for kids from the age of nine months, isn’ it? For children’s welfare?

The Longitudinal Study found that the most important indicators for a child’s cognitive ability were what they call “the home learning environment”: How financially comfortable the family was, how well educated, how well they parented. And they haven’t reported yet on the children’s emotional well-being.

But I’m not being fair, because the Coalition is promising shared leave of 36 weeks while Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats are looking for the year described as “critical” by Start Strong — though the Soc Dems also make the welcome suggestion of a right to flexible work enshrined in law.

Twelve months is only “critical” because it is the most amount of time which our rapacious system will consider allowing to infants before parents go back to the front and to the munitions factory to continue their capitalist warfare.

It is not “critical” in any other way. One year does not represent a developmental milestone for young children. Three years do.

As childcare guru Penelope Leach told The Guardian following the largest research study of UK children ever completed, “the less time children spend in group care before three years the better”. That’s presumably why so many European countries, including Germany, Spain, Poland, Austria, Slovakia, and Finland — which has the best educational outcomes in the world — allow and support three years’ parental leave, as did the Labour Party itself in 2002.

Given a choice between cheap childcare and three years’ leave, nearly all Finnish parents take the leave. But we are to be given no choice. And that’s the problem with cheap childcare without balancing measures for home-parenting: it makes home-parenting financially impossible.

How can a one earner or one-and-a-half earner couple compete for housing and opportunities against a two-earner couple with rock-bottom childcare expenses? Even with the Coalition’s €6,000 cash payment to snaffle them into their first mortgage?

They can’t. €2 an hour childcare with no balancing support for home-rearing puts parents and relations working in the home on a wage of €2 an hour. Anyone can earn more than that outside the home and so everyone will have to, even if their sick toddlers have to go to a crèche so they can clean someone else’s toilet.

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