The Cost Of Childcare: Women’s Work And Women’s Wages
Pre-school childcare is generally regarded as expensive. Even with government financial support, it stretches many household budgets. But there are now many more childcare places than hitherto. More places and higher costs, properly handled, may together be a longer-term sign of better status for women in the labour market.
The cost of pre-school childcare, we are constantly reminded, is ‘spiralling’ – highest, as ever, in London, and lowest in the north-west of England. The Daycare Trust tells us that the average cost of a full-time nursery place for under-twos is now (as of January 2007) £152 a week in England, and £131 in Wales. With individual average earnings at £447 a week, this is a hefty chunk out of some household budgets.
Early years support
Few would deny, however, that the government is doing its best to provide quality care for pre-school children. Welcoming recent developments, Alison Garnham, joint Chief Executive of the Daycare Trust called on the Government, as well as other political parties, to deliver the Ten Year Childcare Strategy:
‘At long last we have a government that is committed to making
progress in childcare facilities in this country. When New Labour came to power they faced major challenges in delivering high quality and affordable childcare to all families and we welcome wholeheartedly the improvements that have been made under the Ten Year Strategy.‘
Big changes from the past
Long gone is the grim time when finding childcare was an individual (mother)’s nightmare, relying only on a hunch and perhaps a local health visitor – who probably didn’t ‘approve’ of working mums – in the exhausting search for someone reliable to care for one’s children whilst the money to feed them was earned.
In 2007, Sure Start is metamorphosing into Children’s Centres,
and the tax credit system – to the daily tune of more than £2m for almost 400,000 families – helps many parents, as do tax-relief childcare vouchers (now up to age 12); and three- and four-year olds are entitled to 12.5 hours of free nursery education a week. In London, there is also a Childcare Affordability Programme which subsidises the cost of childcare by up to £30 for eligible parents.
Direct costs are up
Nonetheless, parents in the UK pay about 70% of the costs of childcare, compared to an average of about 30% for other European parents. (Where, of course, childcare patterns are sometimes very different.) And costs have risen more quickly than inflation – almost 6% in 2006, against inflation of less than half this.
Alongside this, there are reports that affordable childcare is
difficult to find in many areas.
Not all bad news
I have three takes on this situation:
There is the individual problem for parents who find it hard to fund good childcare; there is the opportunity for business-minded child carers at last to earn a decent living; and there is a shift in the labour market which, longer-term, may well serve everyone well.
Parents’ stretched budgets
First, I have every sympathy with parents who struggle to make ends meet and find the costs of ‘quality’ childcare so difficult. Raising young families is always a challenge and it is crucial that every possible support is given to parents in their efforts to do this responsibly and well.
It’s very important from every perspective that parents – including, but not only, single parents – and their children receive all the help which can be mustered by their communities, employers, and the government.
Second, this situation is by no means bad news for those entrepreneurs – almost all of them women – who see a childcare market opportunity and grasp it.
Childcare providers, at least in Britain, has traditionally been appallingly badly paid. It is about time that this changed. These days many people are concerned about the quality of what they eat. If there is now a public debate also about the quality of care for their children, this can only be to the good.
The market will rise to the opportunity; but, just as with quality food, provision may not always be cheap. (Though expense is not always the issue: sometimes it’s actually organising the right thing which is the problem. Neither home-grown food nor local, small-scale quality childcare need be so very expensive.)
The labour market
Finally, if I were a feminist economist (assuming such persons consciously exist), I would be pleased about the current scenario.
It is likely that most of those who are pushing for higher wages in response to childcare costs will be women. By the logic of the market this demand will have to be addressed and to some extent met.
And a corollary, given only finite amounts of available money,
may well be a market shift towards more equality of income between women and men. If women demand more pay, male employees (or indeed their managers / shareholding employers) will have to give way to a degree at least – especially as women are increasingly vital to the workforce, now often taking the field in terms of qualifications (sometimes gained whilst their little ones are receiving childcare) and skills.
Courage in transition
It’s a long, hard struggle, this childcare – equality scenario. But things overall are already better than they were, and the likelihood is that more pressure, higher expectations and political will together really can make a difference.
The Government’s Every Child Matters programme can of course be improved as experience in ‘how to do it’ is gained in
communities and by decision-makers. Potential for improvements in childcare is however a positive, never a negative. The Government must keep its nerve.
The debates about affordability and quality in early years provision are welcome signs that every child does indeed ‘matter’, and that, slowly, the economy is adjusting to recognise just that.