Child­care cri­sis takes more than a fi­nan­cial toll

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Bar­bara Ellen

Child­care costs have risen up to seven times faster than wages, ac­cord­ing to TUC re­search. Av­er­age costs in Eng­land for par­ents with a one-yearold rose 48% be­tween 2008 and 2016 and sin­gle par­ents have been hit hard­est, spend­ing more than 20% of their wages on child­care.

While the gov­ern­ment sub­sidises 15 to 30 hours of child­care for three- and four-year-olds, most par­ents with one-year-olds get no help. In the mean­time, some nurs­eries and child­min­ders are strug­gling or clos­ing, be­cause, while their work­load and obli­ga­tions have in­creased, state fund­ing is in­ad­e­quate.

Read­ing this, I re­alised that I’ve been rel­a­tively lucky with child­care. Al­though I was a sin­gle mum for years, I could mainly work from home and child­care be­came akin to an on­go­ing game of lo­gis­ti­cal Twis­ter – if I do this, I can just about do that, and, if I put my child there, I can just about make it to there. A patch­work of nurs­eries, babysit­ters, help from other par­ents, af­ter-school clubs and some­times – in emer­gen­cies – tak­ing chil­dren along to as­sign­ments. (Jimmy Mc­Gov­ern was par­tic­u­larly good hu­moured about the fly­ing Lego bricks.)

Some­times, it was all a Twis­ter-stretch too far and I ended up in a dis­or­gan­ised, undig­ni­fied heap, but I got through. Later, I had huge amounts of help from grand­par­ents – the UK’s not-so-se­cret army of child­car­ers. Like I say, lucky.

As the re­search sug­gests, other peo­ple aren’t so for­tu­nate, In­deed, away from the top tier of child­care (live-in nan­nies, up­mar­ket nurs­eries), for too many peo­ple, the first ques­tions al­ways have to be: what can we af­ford and what’s flex­i­ble?

“Flex­i­ble” usu­ally mean­ing can you drop the kids off early enough so that you don’t get a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing late at work. And can you pick them up late enough so that you don’t get a rep­u­ta­tion for sneak­ing off early? In this con­text, other im­por­tant ques­tions – who can you trust? Is the child happy? Are you happy? – could start to seem al­most friv­o­lous.

When your child’s wel­fare ul­ti­mately de­pends on you keep­ing your job, child­care goes from be­ing a choice to be­ing a ba­sic util­ity, as in­dis­pens­able as the wa­ter from your taps and the elec­tric­ity that pow­ers your lights. It’s at this level that peo­ple are hard­est hit by sub­stan­dard state pro­vi­sions and, of th­ese peo­ple, it would seem that women are the hard­est hit of all, in par­tic­u­lar, very low earn­ers and sin­gle moth­ers.

So what’s new, right? In­deed, it’s amaz­ing that, for so many women, child­care and child­care costs re­main the sin­gle big­gest thing they have to sort out be­fore they’re even “al­lowed” to work. While there will al­ways be ex­cep­tions (in­creas­ingly so, as fam­i­lies base de­ci­sions on who is the high­est earner), it still seems that women bear the brunt, both of the afore­men­tioned is­sues of child­care and of not hav­ing child­care (giv­ing up jobs, cut­ting back hours, stalling ca­reers).

Al­though women are on the child­care front­line, ul­ti­mately, it’s the fam­ily as a whole that pays the mul­ti­fac­eted cost (fi­nan­cial, lo­gis­ti­cal and emo­tional) – that’s if the cost can be borne at all. Part of the prob­lem seems to be this ab­surd, an­ti­quated view of child­care as a kind of life­style whim, an in­dul­gence, re­sult­ing in a gov­ern­ment that seems be­wil­dered by crit­i­cisms of its in­ad­e­quate, un­der­funded sys­tem.

Why are so many younger chil­dren not be­ing funded? Why are child­care pro­fes­sion­als pres­sured to such a de­gree that they must pass on ad­di­tional costs to par­ents? When will it be ac­knowl­edged that, for many fam­i­lies, wages are in­tol­er­a­bly out of step with the cost of liv­ing? It seems high time that child­care was viewed more re­al­is­ti­cally – as a ba­sic util­ity, not a lux­ury, and def­i­nitely not a rea­son why some­one de­cides that they sim­ply can’t af­ford to work.

Child­care costs have soared by 48% since 2008. Pho­to­graph: Do­minic Lip­in­ski/PA

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