Childcare costs have risen up to seven times faster than wages, according to TUC research. Average costs in England for parents with a one-year-old 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.