Why it’s time for universal, free, taxpayer-funded childcare

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And then we had kids.

Wasn’t that quite the bomb?

Suddenly, we were plunged into an uncertain world of juggling mothering and work. When should we go back to work? How many days a week? How many hours?

We embroiled ourselves in so-called “mummy wars”, pitting women who “chose” to work against stay-at-home mums. These skirmishes only left both sides bloodied, both equally shrouded in fear, shame and “mummy guilt” about whether we were making the right decision to both optimise our careers and care for our little ones.

How many relationships would be tested to breaking point by the arguments about divvying up work and parenting?

I remember seeing Gloria Steinem at Sydney Town Hall a few years back. A young woman in the audience asked how she could encourage her friends who didn’t identify as “feminists” to get outraged. “Life will radicalise them,” Steinem replied.

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And dear reader, it has. Having navigated Australia’s childcare system for about five years until my son reached school age, I call bullshit.

Earlier waves of feminism paved the way for women to storm into paid work, but we failed to set up the social structures needed for working women and their families to flourish in the workforce.

Many people were disappointed that last week’s federal budget didn’t include more money for childcare, labelling it “anti-women”. But this budget isn’t anti-women any more so than any other budget to date that has perpetuated a system where women have equality in name, but not in effect.

This budget simply does nothing to improve that situation.

But it’s true we could do so much better. And it’s not too late.

Indeed, I believe the time has come for Australia’s federal government to move towards universal childcare – by which I mean government-funded free childcare for any family that wants it.

Sound radical? Well, it’s exactly what we do for children aged over five today. Who exactly decided five years was the age at which kids suddenly become a social responsibility? Why not 4? Why not 2? Why not the moment they come out of the hospital?

If we want to help working women and their families, we must fix childcare and aged care now.

The feminism movements of the 1960s and 1970s successfully swept away many overt barriers to women entering the workforce, including overtly discriminatory laws.

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But we failed to also reform society’s institutions to provide adequate replacement care for the children and elderly who previously relied on women’s unpaid work.

It’s time for society to step up to the plate – with our taxes – to care for both our very young and our very old.

Economists are finally on board, after an inglorious period during the second half of the 20th century in which a largely male economics profession regarded children as private “consumption goods’, enjoyed by their parents and therefore the sole responsibility thereof.

Nowadays, economists widely believe the cost of government-subsidised childcare is offset, at least to some degree, by the benefits of getting more women into work, creating well-paid new jobs in caring professions and boosting future productivity by endowing children with early learning opportunities.

Presently, second income earners (mostly women) face punitive “effective” tax rates which mean they get to keep very little of their earned income after taxes, childcare costs and the withdrawal of family benefits are factored in.

To overcome this work disincentive for women, you can either lower taxes, slow the rate at which benefits are withdrawn or make childcare cheaper or free.

I support the latter.

Critics of universal childcare say it is not fair that very rich families should have access to taxpayer-funded care. But we do it for school-aged children. Why not under-5s?

The relief I have felt this year after finally getting my child to school age has been palpable. All the guilt and uncertainty about what is the “right” decision – whether to work or care – is over.

I’ll never forget those childcare years. They were hard. And expensive.

Future generations of mothers deserve better.

Instead of childcare being an “opt in” decision, parents should be given an “opt out” decision. Childcare should be free and widely available for all families. Mums who want to stay at home should. Mums who want to work – or don’t have a choice – should not be penalised for doing so.

It’s time to wake up and smell the gas.

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Jessica Irvine is a senior economics writer with The Sydney Morning Herald.

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