VICTORIA WHITE: Katherine Zappone’s childcare plan prices stay-home parents out of market

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone TD. Photo: RollingNews.ie

The argument for the policy is that government should not discriminate between parents in paid work and parents at home, writes Victoria White.

CARING for your own children is bad. Caring for someone else’s children is good. That’s the thrust of the new cash-for-childcare policy under consideration by the Cabinet for inclusion in next month’s budget.

If you use a registered childcare service, you’ll get a subsidy of about €2,000 per year, per child towards the care. If you rear that child yourself, you’ll get nothing.

There is plenty to like about Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone’s plan. She is recommending higher benefits for less well-off parents, who will see much of their childcare subsidised and lower benefits for those on higher incomes. It seems that around €47,000 per couple will be deemed the threshold of acceptability for receiving higher benefits.

The payment is flexible. It will be paid to users of private creches and private childminders but all these facilities must be registered as adhering to new mandatory standards. This could have the effect of raising standards overall without impacting on parents’ wish to stay with the much-loved local child-minder or crèche.

But it is appalling because it excludes parents who care for their own children. They are outside the pale of state support as if they had done something terribly wrong. Most of them have done nothing wrong. There is no research study in the world which says that it is bad for children to be cared for by their own parents. Families, Children and Childcare, the largest study of childcare choices ever conducted in the UK found parental care was clearly the best option for young children, followed by childminders and relations, with crèche care coming in last.

Katherine Zappone’s childcare plan prices stay-home parents out of market

Who cares what the research says. Ms Zappone promised to bring in a Nordic childcare system and this is it. Except there is one part of the Nordic package which we’re leaving out: Parents. Not only do Nordic parents have the option of long, paid parental leave — in Sweden, Norway, and Finland they also have the option of taking the cash for the care of their own preschoolers rather than using a state childcare facility.

The schemes vary quite a bit. The best-established is that in Finland, which covers children aged between one and three, and includes both a universal and a means-tested element. It can be extended to include the care of older preschoolers, with each child attracting a separate payment.

The argument for the policy is that government should not discriminate between parents in paid work and parents at home when it comes to childcare. Government policy should be neutral and people should make their own choices.

Cash-for-care is the subject of a furious and often polarised debate in the Nordic countries. In Sweden and Norway, where it is less well-established than in Finland, the debating teams are usually Social Democratic (against) and Christian Democrat (for) and the motion is: “Does cash for care offer women choice, or is it a housewife trap?” In this country there is no debate of any kind. Virtually nobody stands up for parenting at home, although recent census returns indicate that 75% of children under 12 are cared for in this way. Hardly anyone raises an objection as the axe falls again and again on a central strut of our society as it is currently constituted. Nobody ever asks whether some of the positive results for Ireland in comparative studies — in school retention, for instance or happiness in childhood — might be impacted in any way by the work of parents in their homes.

Advocates witter on about “a level playing field” for those who work outside the home and have the “extra expense” of childcare. They don’t have this “extra expense”. Those who work in the home have forfeited their income. They are not spending 50% of their income on childcare. They are spending 100% of their income on it. Parents “can’t afford to work” because it wouldn’t be worth their while, apparently. But nobody asks why it should be worth more to the economy to sit in an office or stand in a shop than to care for a child at home. And nobody makes the connection between that under-valuation of care in the home and the appallingly low pay which is typical in the childcare sector.

What the trade union Siptu says in its pre-budget submission to Ms Zappone on childcare — “Despite the importance of their work these workers are usually paid less than a living wage and receive little recognition for their qualifications or their contribution to society” — relates equally to parents in the home. That’s not surprising because they both care for children and the issue here is our inability to value the care of children. Our inability to value children.

Katherine Zappone’s childcare plan prices stay-home parents out of market

Katherine Zappone is, I think, a minister who does value children. But she seems hostage to an ideology which sees professional childcare as an unqualified benefit to children, regardless of the quality of parenting they would otherwise receive. This is just not so. The research into the benefits of childcare which shows dollars invested by society multiplying up to 16 times by the alchemy of preschool are quoted again and again nearly all refer to the Perry Preschool Project run in the US between 1962 and 1967 by which 123 children from seriously disadvantaged homes were taken into lavishly-funded preschool services between the ages of three and four.

For them, childcare presented an unqualified benefit. For children from supportive homes the benefits of preschool are described by our own National Economic and Social Forum as “modest, if any” while in the UK, Families, Children and Childcare’s Penelope Leach found that as a general rule “the less childcare before the age of three, the better.” Tax individualisation removed a stay-home parent’s tax allowance and can cause gaps of over €5,000 between the one and the two-income household. This new benefit threatens to add €2,000 per child to the penalty paid by families in which one parent stays home. If it is brought in, there will be two-income families which already gain under the tax code by over €100 a week, compared with single-income families, but further are subsidised by €2,000, €4,000 or even €6,000 a year — and that’s before you count the second income. How on earth can the single-income family compete with them for housing and services?

The State is planning to extend its cruel discrimination against single income families, including those who can’t get a second job due to health issues, geography or unmarketable skills or whose children require extra care. Let’s have the childcare payment, but let’s do it like the Nordic-style. Let’s pay it to parents working in their homes as well.


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