Affordable childcare, yes – but don’t forget the dads!

7 September 2011

Fiona McAllister writes:

Save the Children and the Daycare Trust today released a timely report showing that the high costs of childcare can make entering employment prohibitively expensive for Britain’s poorest parents.

They argue that alongside rising living expenses and cuts in the proportion of childcare costs covered by tax credits (from 80 to 70%), the high price of childcare places makes returning to work economically challenging for many with the most to gain from paid work. If the Government wishes to ‘make work pay’ it needs to address the issue of affordable childcare. A very important point, especially as the benefits system moves towards the new Universal credit, and must continue to meet the needs of working parents.

On the Radio 4 Today programme this morning there was discussion as to whether the State should be involved in framing choices about work and childcare. There seemed to be agreement that lone parents need assistance into work and children need to be raised out of poverty. The elephant in the room was gender.

When couples sit down to work out who does what after the birth of their children they do not do so in a vacuum. Instead they come to the table with two different experiences of the transition to parenthood: a mother who has paid maternity leave, a father with two weeks’ paternity leave – which he often will not take because it is so lowly paid.

Before the pregnancy has happened the gender pay gap and the predominance of men in the best-paid employment sectors are likely to mean that she takes on more childcare, whilst he remains on full-time hours to support the family. Many of the poorest lone parents (the vast majority of whom are mothers) have a particular struggle getting back to work because they have had few employment options before, let alone after, childbirth. These are not simply private choices.

In the newest generation of parents there are increasing numbers of higher earning mothers, and fathers willing to take on more of the care of children; in many couples both partners work full-time – but the childcare costs which hamper the poorest in entering the workforce also lead to difficulties for parents sustaining employment over time. When arrangements stretch to breaking point, it is very often the mothers who reduce hours or drop out of the workforce altogether.

I have lost count of the number of times relatively well-qualified, relatively well-paid women have said to me that they stopped working when their children were young because ‘it was too much trouble’. The logistics of combining employment with costly childcare, commuting time and school timetables remain a major headache for parents in all economic groups.

Not only do we need a system that recognises the costs of caring for children but we need acknowledgement that work-family balance has been a gender issue and that many parents (of both sexes) would prefer to combine jobs and childcare in a more flexible way. The OECD has recently said that ‘parental leave design is one of the few policy tools that are available to governments to directly influence behaviours among parents’ (read more in their Doing Better For Families report).

If we want both mothers and fathers to have the option of flourishing as employees and parents then we must make sure that proposals to extend fathers’ entitlement to parental leave and flexible working come into force, and that the costs of childcare do not continue to be borne disproportionately by mothers. Is that too much trouble?

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