Parents of small children are all too familiar with the competing demands of family, child care and work. Each family finds its own way to negotiate the demands of career planning, the care of children, work commitments and work hours.
The high cost of childcare, particularly if a family has more than one child, has been identified as one of the disincentives to women (in particular) spending longer hours each week at paid employment. The difference between what they can earn by working more hours and the cost of this in childcare fees can make the venture not worth their while.
On the other hand, spending more time at home can have long term consequences: women’s careers are more likely to stall or progress at a much slower pace than their male counterparts; their superannuation entitlements on retirement are likely to be lower, their chances of promotion to senior positions within their workplaces and chosen fields is reduced.
The Federal government’s budget includes a $1.7 billion childcare subsidy package. The Women’s Budget Statement provides:
An increase to the Child Care Subsidy will be provided for second and subsequent children aged five and under and the annual cap on child care subsidy payments will be removed for all families. This investment will generate an increase in women’s workforce participation. It has the potential to add up to 300,000 hours of work per week, which will allow the equivalent of around 40,000 individuals to work an extra day per week, and boost GDP by up to $1.5 billion per year. These changes strengthen our economy and provide greater choice to parents who want to work an extra day or two a week.
According to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, women’s work patterns have changed considerably over the past sixty years in Australia. Traditionally, most women stayed in the workforce until they got married and then never returned to paid work. In the 1970s, this trend began to change with women withdrawing from the workforce upon having children but then returning once their children were older.
Census data show relatively little change in the employment patterns of fathers over the last 25 years. In two-parent households, the majority of fathers worked full time with the percentage of part time work increasing slightly, from 6% in 1991 to 10% in 2016.
While the number of couple-with-children families featuring two working parents has increased, the allocation of Australian parents’ time to paid and unpaid work has remained very gendered, with fathers usually in full time paid employment, and mothers often employed part time or not in employment.
More research needs to be conducted into the reasons why this division regarding paid employment persists. The Federal government, for its part, is making the assumption that the cost of childcare is the major driver of women’s decisions to limit their hours of work. On this basis, it is anticipating that reducing the cost of childcare will motivate more women to work longer hours, thereby injecting much needed-stimulus to the economy in the form of more taxes being paid, more demand for child care centres and staff, and greater productivity.
These measures represent a positive development for single parents reliant on a single wage to support their families in so far as they provide tax benefits and subsidies that allow them to earn more and not be penalised by prohibitive child care costs.
To the extent that these measures give more support to families, they are to be welcomed, especially ones that provide economic incentives for families with more than one child. A deeper look at the budget measures however, reveals that when it comes to two-parent families, the government is really only assisting one type of family, that is, one where both parents work outside the home and have their children cared for in institutional childcare.
A truly pro-woman budget policy would give parents more choice about the ways they organise their parenting and childcare responsibilities. Instead of, or in addition to, subsidies for childcare, child allowances paid to parents would allow them to use the money in a way that best suits their individual families. They might decide, for example, to put the money towards a nanny or to subsidise the cost of one of the parents foregoing income to stay at home to care for children. This would ensure that all families, not just those using childcare, would benefit.
Families tend to make choices based on their assessment of what is in the best interests of their children and their families, and a budget measure that presumes to make these decisions for women isn’t truly pro-woman. Women make decisions about child-rearing and careers based on a number of factors. These are not always driven by economics or climbing the corporate ladder.
Studies that examine the reasons that some parents choose not to put their children into institutionalised child care and choose “parent-only care” instead revealed that these are multi-faceted. Parents may choose not to work and be at home with their small children because of “gut instinct”, the perceived “best interests of the child”, freedom, flexibility, a more peaceful “less hectic” household, a sense of security for the child and peace of mind for the parents who can be sure that the child is safe and happy, as well as a desire not to miss out on a significant part of their child’s early childhood.
It isn’t just uneducated or unemployed women choosing to be the primary carers of their small children; a study of “highly educated mothers who stayed home with their children full-time … found that participants ascribed great value to being present for the child’s milestones. This notion was intertwined with a belief in the value of the consistent presence of a parent during the child’s formative years.”
It is clear that for some parents, the choice to work only part time or not at all is not driven by the cost of childcare nor can it be attributed to a lack of work opportunities. Rather, some families choose to invest their time in their child’s formation, rather than in progressing a career or chasing a wage. Even when taking time off work creates financial constraints for the family, many families prioritise having an “at home” parent as important to the family’s health, happiness and long-term stability as well as their children’s best interests.
If the government really wants to give women more ‘choice’, it should consider issues pertaining to women’s participation in work that extend far beyond just economic considerations.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia.
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