Aidan Regan: If childcare is an essential service, why do we not provide it publicly?

The pandemic made clear the degree to which our economy relies on childcare, yet a Unicef study shows Ireland nearly the worst of 41 rich nations in terms of provision and cost

Over 99 per cent of early childhood education and care services in Ireland are privately provided. The European average is less than 30 per cent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major struggle for those balancing childcare and work. With the creche and office closed, parenting while working from home became a new norm.

There is a growing body of research now showing that women were disproportionately affected by this burdensome change. This is because working women are still the primary caregivers in the home.

The pandemic also revealed just how important childcare is for a functioning labour market, and society more broadly. It crystallised an important public policy question that has been dodged for years in Ireland – if childcare is such an essential service, why is it not publicly provided?

We would never expect the market to provide the delivery and standards of our primary education system, but we accept it for the provision of early childhood education and care.

We would also never pay and treat our primary school teachers in the same way we treat those who provide care to our toddlers. As the National Women's Council has consistently pointed out, the care sector is characterised by precarious, low-paid work. It is almost entirely provided by women and many of these women are migrants, sometimes working in exploitative conditions.

Over 99 per cent of early childhood education and care (ECEC) services in Ireland are privately provided through the market. The European average is less than 30 per cent. The feminist battle in many European countries from the 1970s onwards was focused on the politics of care. Central to this was making sure that the care of children was not left to the for-profit market.

Ireland’s market-provided childcare services are prohibitively expensive for many families. It creates a deep inequality within society between those who can afford to access ECEC, and those who cannot, with further knock-on effects within the labour market.

There is a large social policy literature highlighting the importance of ECEC for the early development of children – cognitively, socially and emotionally. This research tends to show that ECEC is particularly beneficial for children that come from households with familial and socio-emotional problems. Based on this research, you would think that the government would give just as much importance to publicly providing affordable ECEC than to higher-education.

Borderline unaffordable

More recently, research has shown that ECEC is one of the most important aspects of creating a positive work-life balance for parents. Furthermore, it is the single most important factor in enabling women to equally participate in society. Countries that provide it as a publicly funded universal service have the highest employment rates for women. In countries where it is provided through the market, the employment rate for working women, particularly those in households on average earnings, drops significantly.

Notwithstanding the importance of cultural difference around gender norms in explaining this variation between and within European countries, the reason is clear and obvious. In market-provided care, it is too expensive for most families on average earnings to have both parents working, and to have children in a creche.

Even for those on higher earnings, paying for childcare is borderline unaffordable. Ireland has the most expensive childcare system in the European Union and the second most expensive in Europe, after Switzerland.

Ireland’s status as an outlier in Europe is captured in a recently published report by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare? The report develops a league table for 41 rich countries based on how these countries perform on eight different indicators related to family-friendly employment and childcare policies. Ireland ranks 36/41, clustering at the bottom of the league table with countries that also rely on market-based provision, such as the US, Australia, Switzerland and Britain.

The eight indicators are based around four core measurements – parental leave policies, such as how many weeks mothers and fathers can take at full pay; access policies, such as ECEC enrolment rates for children under the age of three; quality care policies, such as the children-to-staff ratio; and affordability, measured as the cost of childcare for two children, for a two-earning couple.

In terms of paid parental leave policies, Ireland has the lowest statutory full-pay equivalent maternity leave in Europe. Of the 41 countries in the report, only the US performs worse, which is hardly surprising, given that the US is the only rich country in the world without a statutory right to paid maternity leave. The most generous full-pay equivalent maternity leave in Europe is offered by the four post-communist countries: Romania, Estonia, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Research has shown that extensive full-pay equivalent parental leave policies positively affect children's development, allowing for greater emotional attachment between children and their parents.

In the higher-paid public and multinationals sectors in Ireland, for example, many employers will go beyond their statutory requirements and offer six months at full pay to new mothers, with the option to subsequently take additional unpaid leave.

But unfortunately, these types of benefits are not available to most new mothers, particularly those on low incomes, thereby creating pressure to get back to work as soon as possible.

But to get back to work you have to be able to afford creche or a childminder. Alternatively, you need to be able to draw upon a larger family network that will informally provide the care. For many two-earning couples, particularly those on low incomes, the first option is simply unaffordable. Hence, one parent, typically the primary caregiving mother, withdraws from the labour force, leading to a situation whereby Ireland has one of the lowest female employment rates in Europe.

The UN report highlights just how expensive childcare is in Ireland. A two-earning couple on average income can expect to pay 30 to 50 per cent of one person's salary for two children in daycare. Note, these are averages, and will vary significantly by region and county. In Dublin, it is not at all unusual for a two-earning working couple to pay upwards of 60 to 80 per cent of one person's salary to have their children in care. This leads middle to high-earning couples to equally debate whether it is worth both going back to work at all.

Historical expectation

Ireland’s institutional approach to providing childcare is clearly influenced by the historical expectation that the mother stays at home until at least one year prior to primary school. This is completely at odds with the socio-cultural changes that have taken place in our economy and society.

This is not to say that Ireland has not incrementally taken steps to improve the quality and affordability of childcare. The ECEC scheme, and the recent National Childcare Scheme (NCS) provides for some publicly funded childcare for 3-5 year olds, and various subsidies exist, particularly for lower income families. But while these cash subsidies are an improvement, they continue an outdated welfare system that is focused on cash benefits over public services. They simply subsidise private providers in an already overpriced market.

Most working and middle-income families want the provision of a publicly funded service – high-quality, accessible, affordable childcare – over navigating the complex welfare administrative system to receive a cash subsidy that they then pay to a private for-profit provider. I would even go out on a limb and argue that most working and middle-income families would be willing to pay more income tax or social insurance in return for this essential public service.

Ultimately, however, it is a debate about the politics of care. As a society, are we willing to accept that it is the role of the for-profit market sector to provide affordable, high-quality care to our children? Are we willing to have those who are responsible for our children’s early development to be working long hours on precarious contracts and low pay? I don’t think so.

Providing high-quality and affordable childcare is the most important feminist issue in Ireland. We should be willing to fight for it, and pay for it. It means recognising universal childcare as a social right, structurally reforming the welfare state to benefit working families, and financing universal provision.

Aidan Regan is an associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin