We could do better on child care

Taxpayers will subsidise child care for over 800,000 Australian families to the tune of $8 billion per year in 2019-2020, and the costs keep climbing. Parents’ out-of-pocket costs for long day care and other formal care grew by 50% between 2011 and 2017.

But despite this massive investment, at least half the parents eligible for the new Child Care Subsidy see the system as inflexible and unaffordable.

In our research paper, What Do Parents Want? Australian childcare preferences and attitudes, the feedback from surveyed working mothers with children aged between newborn and five reveals that current child care policy may not be meeting their needs or fulfilling national policy goals — particularly that of enabling women to more easily be part of the workforce.

Rather than formal care, 50% of the mothers said they would prefer informal arrangements. They wanted the option to have a grandparent or other relative, a friend or a nanny providing care, with 66% even saying they would accept a lower subsidy if this meant more flexibility and affordability.

The CIS research showed that working mothers’ highest priority when choosing child care was the ‘warmth’ of the care-giving, with 60% putting this in their top three considerations, along with cost and location. They were much less interested in the qualifications of child care workers — which have been pegged higher under the National Quality Framework introduced in 2012 — with only 9% calling this the most important factor. Only 10% pointed to early childhood education as their major focus.

For decades, governments have emphasised their commitment to helping parents – particularly women – to participate in the workforce. However, many mothers contributing to the CIS study stated that they were underemployed, with 46% saying they would work more hours if they could rely on other types of child care.

The policy conflict is obvious and needs to be resolved. The current system looks like an attempt to retrofit a four-year early education strategy over the top of a workforce participation scheme.

This is an edited extract of the opinion piece published as Why the Child Care Subsidy is failing parents across News Corp.