The impossible economy of childcare

I remember the first time my Laser card was rejected. It was 2010, and I was just back at work after my second maternity leave. I was trying to buy some groceries, and couldn’t understand why my card wouldn’t go through.

I checked my balance.

Forty-three cents.

Mid-way through the month.

It took a few hours for it all to sink in, and to work out where all the money had gone. It had gone to crèche.

childcare office mum

The reality was, I hadn’t adjusted my spending or budget to take into account that we had two children in full-time childcare; paying €2,100 per month. It wasn’t just a second mortgage – it was more than our mortgage.

My first instinct was to rail (silently) against the crèche – why were they charging so much? But when I broke it down, I was effectively paying €4.77 per child per hour. Less than a fiver.

It’s minuscule – a tiny, tiny amount by any standards. I’d have to pay twice that to a babysitter to mind them while they’re asleep in bed.

So I was paying a second mortgage, but the crèche was only earning €5 per hour per child, and covering all their overheads with that. How does that equation work?

The money is certainly not going to the childcare workers. 2,000 of them marched protested outside Leinster House last week, to highlight the low pay in their sector. Women (and it’s mostly women) who have similar qualifications to primary school teachers, are paid low wages, and often let go outside term-time, when the free pre-school year doesn’t run. They’re doing an incredibly important job – one we want them to get right, but they’re being paid low hourly rates, often barely more than minimum wage.

So how does it all add up?

Childcare - how does it all add up? Office Mum

What it comes down to is that childcare and early childhood education is expensive, and necessarily so. Most crèches can’t reduce their costs, and I don’t think anyone wants childcare workers to be paid even less than they already are. Nor do we want lower quality facilities. So while we as parents can’t afford to keep paying what we pay, that money is absolutely necessary to cover costs, and has to come from somewhere.

The only logical solution is more state funding. Unsurprisingly, we’re lagging behind. In Ireland, expenditure on early years’ services is at 0.15% of GDP, whereas the OECD average is 0.75%.

And of course, there’s little or no money out there to be invested into childcare or anywhere else. But in a perfect world, shouldn’t childcare be treated like primary school education? Provided by the state, with additional payments made by parents, who can of course choose one facility over another, and pay associated extra costs?

Not all families have two parents working, so arguably putting state money into childcare is unfair. But with the gap between what parents can afford to pay and what it costs to provide high quality care to children so wide, is there any solution other than state investment?

All of us pay income tax that goes towards services we don’t use – maybe childcare and early childhood education should fall into that category too. Childcare should be like education – state-funded, and available to all who need it.

A recent report by Start Strong found that:

  • Quality of early care and education in Ireland is extremely variable and we know that poor quality can harm children
  • Government invests a pitifully low amount in early care and education and public funding goes to services without regard to quality
  • Parents pay some of the highest childcare costs in the world without any guarantee of quality
  • Parents often face an all or nothing choice – work full-time or leave paid employment entirely
  • Childcare providers are expected to run an educational service while also being entrepreneurs and running a financially viable business. Childcare workers are often on low wages – hourly rates barely above minimum wage

The report concluded that we need a new model of early years’ services for our young children, focused on quality that is accessible and affordable to all.

Start Strong director Ciairín de Buis, in her speech at the launch of the report last December, said we need to explore that idea that childcare is “Not a business model, but a profession, in which public investment allows early years educators to deliver a public service – a public service that is focused on quality, while also accessible and affordable to families. One that puts children’s interests first, and shows the high value we place on young children’s care and early learning.”

And that’s it – ultimately, we’re talking about investing in high quality care and education for our children, which is an investment in the future for all of us. Surely that’s an equation that does add up?


For a realistic but ultimately uplifting take on it, read Nicola Sheehan’s story: she knew that her salary wouldn’t cover the cost of having two children in creche, so she saved up to go back to work: Office Mum stories – Nicola Sheehan

Nicola Sheehan Office Mum

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10 thoughts on “The impossible economy of childcare”

  1. The situation isn’t any better in the states, unless you work for a company that has day care/creche onsite. It is a no win situation. If you want to continue your career, your salary may just cover child care costs. If you stay at home, you lose your income and possibly lessen your career prospects. I think there needs to be a public private partnership to bring down the costs for parents and increase the wages for child care workers . How that would work, I don’t know!
    Mary Conneely recently posted…Special Needs Parents: Are you creating a paper trail?My Profile

  2. I agree somewhat with Mary above on the public/private partnership to safeguard service provision options. I think it should be largely subsidised by the state but not delivered exclusively by it. This will eliminate choice and the less formal arrangements many parents rely on, and I personally have jitters about the expansion of the early education agenda for care of children two years and under. I can see the value in some of the two-year programmes delivered by early years services, but these are usually in tandem with a broader family-centred learning approach, so not strictly a service provision issue.

    In seeking to regulate standards of the quality of childcare, the state should assert itself in its role of regulating prices and thresholds etc.. I would have a more cynical view on the profit-making potential the current model allows for the bigger operators/chains on the scene. I think there are some gaining greatly from the lack of regulation, while their staff are poorly recompensed, and difficult to keep as a result. I would also like to see an overhaul on the further education framework for childcare, and more with an emphasis on on-the-job training and supervision.

    Not an easy one, eh.

  3. I agree that State support is the only way, but it needs to be balanced : as you know I think that there should be more support for all families, so perhaps an increase in child benefit combined with low cost state provided childcare (and maybe an option for private childcare if you want to pay more). I now believe that providing something completely for free is not necessarily a good idea, as people don’t value it, but people need to have enough income to be able to pay for the services they need.
    looking for Blue Sky recently posted…Unbreakable Jazzy and the Determined UniverseMy Profile

  4. I don’t know how the economics work, but in Germany everyone gets a year of maternity leave, and then all the babies go to state-funded creche (kindergarten) until they start school at 7 (I think). It seems like an ideal solution.
    Maud recently posted…The deepest cutMy Profile

  5. In France, Primary school starts at 3 years old, from 9am until 4:30pm with before and after school available at a small fee. Although mothers have only 12 weeks maternity leave, they have the option from the 2nd child to take up to 3 years parental leave paid 75% of their salary. Then, you can deduct a part of the childcare cost from your income tax (hard to explain, but French people don’t pay income tax at source, they have to declare their income every year and can deduct certain things like childcare, commuting cost such as petrol, toll bridge and so on). And you know what? They still complain!
    When I learned I would only get social welfare for my maternity leave, I saved a month salary over the 9 months I was pregnant, and we managed very well. I did the same for my 2nd child as well.
    Childcare is very expensive in Ireland, maybe a system like in France where pre-school would be integrated with Primary school would be a good idea ( and a whole day, not 3 hours a day like it currently is)
    Nearly Irish recently posted…Mother’s guiltMy Profile

    1. Goodness, I can imagine your shock realising that in Ireland it’s the tiny state maternity pay and nothing else! We could learn a lot from France, and from so many other countries. What a pity we didn’t do anything here when there was money.

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