No cost can be high for childcare

Caring for under two-year-olds costs a lot.

This is a take-home message of a recent Report from the Children’s Commissioner.

Increasingly, under two-year-olds in New Zealand are being looked after by childcare workers rather than parents. This often benefits families financially as a second parent (or the only parents in single-parent families) is able to work and draw a wage, but it can also pose risks for the well-being of babies.

The degree of risk is hard to pin-point, but according to the Report, long hours in childcare for very young children, particularly those under one-year-old, increases the chances of things like disrupted attachment, poor health and babies experiencing high levels of stress.

The Children’s Commissioner says a range of things can be done to improve quality of care and mitigate those risks. But herein lies the rub; improving quality comes at a price. The financial benefits of using childcare would shrink, as the cost of childcare would grow.

Are we willing to pay this price? What takes priority?

The Commissioner said, “In an ideal world, care at home by parents or extended family is in the best interests of infants under one-year-old.”

Changing Society

However, the Report was candid in saying that “society has changed” and that “parents will return to work before their children turn two years of age.”

One parent said, “The horse has bolted.” While this assumption is not necessarily accurate, it is true that non-parental care of babies has increased over recent years.

It is also true that parents face a complex web of decisions and must make very difficult trade-offs as they decide what is best for their family.

It seems those decisions are starting to tip towards formal childcare.

Over the past five years, the number of under one-year-olds enrolled in licensed Early Childhood Services has grown by 29.5%.

Given this context, and the reports assumptions, it makes sense that the recommendations made are split between those that want to encourage parental care, and those that aim to improve the quality of non-parental care.

Those aiming to encourage parental care suggest doing so by increasing paid parental leave or making non-parental care more flexible, for example by making sure people are not locked into sending their children to a high number of minimum hours of childcare.

In principle, these are good suggestions; childcare has been incentivised over stay-at-home parenting under policy settings that subsidise childcare to help women back into the workforce.

Incentives like these should be rethought.

The other recommendations focus on improving the quality of childcare.

They say current standards of child-care for under-two-years are “too low” and need to be improved. This would involve tighter regulations, and better practices such as lower staff-child ratios.

Escalating costs

Education Minister Anne Tolley has said such recommendations would make child-care costs go up.

It is pertinent to ask, “How high a priority is the well-being of babies?”

The Report indicates it should be higher than it is. In much of the commentary that has come with this report, it has been assumed that the State should carry the burden of that cost. This is not necessarily the case; opinions abound on this matter and many others would argue that the responsibility lies first with parents. But regardless of whether it is parents, the extended family, or taxpayers that should carry the cost, someone must.

This is no simple thing to say.

Children need our protection. They are not productive, they cost money, and they demand time, care and attention. But life does not get much more basic and precious that this; caring for vulnerable little people as they grow.

At the moment, too many of them are paying the price for their care, in inadequate situations.

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