Free state childcare more than affordable

Hidden away in the Money section of today’s Guardian is this article containing a tag line that all feminists should be shouting from the rooftops: The revenue generated by working mothers would far outstrip the cost of free nursery places for all. Yes, according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), far from being a huge financial burden, universal childcare would actually bring in extra money for the government:

Each mother returning to work full-time on an average wage after a year’s maternity leave would make the government £20,050 a year over four years, the IPPR analysis shows. The cost of their childcare over that period – until the child starts school – is estimated to be £14,000 (taking account of the fact that there are already 15 free hours available for three- and four-year-olds); the mother’s gross income would be £103,500 and she would accordingly pay £34,050 in national insurance and income tax.

When the fact that many mothers return to part-time work or do not earn enough to pay income tax or national insurance is taken into account, the net gain from an additional mother returning to work would be £4,860.

This comes on the back of a recent report by the Resolution Foundation that highlighted the overwhelming economic and social benefits of female employment. The report also found that while 13% of couples with children under six would like the man to work full-time and the woman to stay at home, currently 33% of couples have this arrangement. This reflects a worrying lack of choice and autonomy in the lives of both women and men once they have children, with the gender pay gap, an inflexible working culture, unequal parental leave rights, high childcare costs and gender sterotyping combining to keep women at home and men in the workplace.

Providing free childcare to enable all women to work if they so desire is essential if we want to address these issues (and we should!). The IPPR report provides excellent ammunition against the usual argument that universal childcare just isn’t economically feasible, and it also clearly demonstrates the value of women’s work – and women’s freedom – to the country as a whole. I’ll be writing to my MP to make sure he takes note.

One caveat, however: I think we must be clear when talking about the need for free childcare that universal provision does not mean that women (or men) have an obligation to join the paid workforce. Being a parent is valuable enough work in itself and creating a culture where stay-at-home mums feel guilty about their choices rather than working mums is no kind of progress.

Photo by markb, shared under a Creative Commons licence.