Economists from the Treasury's tax analysis division have been analysing the cost of childcare and the likelihood of women working based on suburb-by-suburb, rather than state by state as has been done in the past.
The results of the study suggest childcare rivals the importance of other measures examined by the Henry tax review as a means of encouraging women to work.
Well-Being Australia chairman Mark Tronson has raised his own family and is now a grandfather with first-hand experience on this issue. His observations over many years support the analysis that child care is critical in the decision making process in women returning to work. Obviously issues of childcare and its affordability aren't the only things families consider when making the work choice. All families and their circumstances are different so various solutions need to be made to address this problem.
Mark and his family lived in cities for fifteen years, in a rural area for fourteen years and now reside in a regional city location. In his travels he has witnesses two different 'economies' practised by young parents in both city and rural areas.
The first is where one partner chooses to stay home full-time, usually the mother, however, sometimes both partners work part-time and share the child-care responsibilities. The second is where the careers, financial obligations, or student responsibilities of both parties are seen as equally important to family life and the couple chooses child-care (either full time or part time). Some families will sacrifice their finances to provide some out of home child care, particularly for older toddlers – because they feel that it is beneficial for their social and intellectual development.
Mark Tronson and his wife, Delma have been fortunate enough to work in total partnership since the birth of his children. When he was a young minister, Delma was involved in church affairs but also had her own interests and hobbies. She also shared interests with her husband including their mutual love of participatory sports. When they progressed to founding the Sports and Leisure Ministry under the auspices of Heads of Churches, both were also heavily involved in that mission.
His profession in the Christian ministry meant that Mark could work from home some of the time and Delma could organise activities and ministry work of her own to coincide with the times Mark would be away. For them, as for many other young couples in professions or business, working from home and sharing tasks meant that child care was not a financial strain.
Since 2000, when they moved sideways to their faith-financed respite mission, Well-Being Australia, they have lived in two different regional areas and found the lifestyle relaxed, less expensive and easier for them to manage their children despite Delma taking on more missionary work.
However, in the 'other' economy, many couples – whether in the inner city, on farms or in businesses anywhere, find that both partners need to work to make ends meet. It is in these situations that the child care costs start to mount. It can be a catch 22 where the two wages are needed to make ends meet but the cost of childcare keeps putting families behind the eight ball.
Child care is a major issue. The alternatives are extremely limited if relatives are not able or close by to help.
This brings Mark Tronson to the issue of qualifications. We all want our children cared for by highly qualified staff; and those staff will need to be paid appropriately. The early education and training of our tiny tots is one of the most important in our society. If we are to improve the quality of care, we will need to pay the staff according to the qualifications we demand. This will only increase the costs.
The analysis by the Department of Treasury is spot on, and little wonder that politicians make a noise about it. But, Mark Tronson reminds us that there are many other factors that determine if a partner returns to work after babies.
"Politicians do not always have their finger on the pulse. They want to put people in stereotyped boxes, and people don't always fit. For example, recently it was announced that 'statistics' showed we do not need as many new child care centres as this Government promised. Perhaps a similar analysis to the economic facts gleaned from the Treasury research would show that although, on average, there may be enough places, they are not always where young families need them to be; and they are not always appropriate or available for babies under two years old.
"We also have to consider appropriate care. For example, a previous regime decided that, although sending a child to a centre would attract a rebate, employing a carer at home smelt of 'rich people with a nanny', and only rich people would do that, and they didn't deserve a rebate.
"So now couples with very young babies, or with irregular working hours (such as nurses or paramedics or police officers), or those with a disabled child, who may have no alternative but to employ a 'nanny' in their own home, must pay through the nose whereas those with the same income who send their children to child-care centres receive a concession," said Mark.
At the moment, the financing and supply of child care is poorly planned – if it is planned at all. The politicians are keen to 'be seen to be helping' families who struggle – not only with making a decision about child care, but also with paying for it. Mark Tronson hopes that the Henry tax review may find that, indeed, childcare is a legitimate cost in earning an income, and perhaps that can bring a little relief to parents, whatever type of care they find is appropriate for their children.