EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Child care funding and the Budget
, May 22, 2004
The Federal Budget, delivered as this comment goes to press, is already being widely described as "a family Budget" with, among other things, a substantial maternity payment to all new mothers, and a large increase in Federal outlays on child care, to assist mothers with young children return to the workforce.
(I am not referring here to pre-school educational programs, day care provided in the family home, or occasional care.)
There have been consistent efforts by the radical feminist lobby to assert that the provision of child care is necessary to help women to achieve workplace equality.
Yet despite the adoption of equal pay over 30 years ago, and at least 20 years of legislation to enforce women's equality, the goal is no closer to achievement. What has happened?
The proportions of married women in the labor force between the ages of 25-54 years increased from around 55 per cent in the early 1980s to around 70 per cent by 1996.
The participation rate for mothers whose youngest child was aged under five years increased from 41.5 per cent in 1987 to 47.4 per cent in 1996, and has continued to rise.Freedom of choice?
While this has been presented as freedom of choice, it is often driven by harsh economic necessity.
Some thirty years ago, it was possible for a family to live on one income and buy a home. Today, home ownership (and even renting) is often impossible without two incomes, due largely to the massive inflation in home prices over recent decades.
The response of governments has been to studiously ignore this problem, and to fund child care facilities, at enormous expense, to substitute for what most mothers would prefer to provide at home.
The effort has not, however, liberated women. As increasing numbers of mothers, often with young children, entered the workforce, they have maintained their traditional responsibility for house work and the care of children.
The consequences are obvious. Despite the provision of child care, women are often working 80- to 90-hour weeks, in the workforce and in the home.
For the poor, the position is even worse. As an American academic recently observed, "It's not unusual for women, especially single mothers, to be working two or three part-time jobs just to make ends meet." Little wonder that many women decide to defer or not to have children.Does child care benefit children?
Despite claims to the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that mothers are the best carers of their children. Raquel Bernal, a labor economist at the Institute for Policy Research in Illinois, has been examining child care choices and the effects of these decisions on children's cognitive ability.
The Institute is no right-wing think tank. Rather, it specialises in examining issues of poverty, particularly affecting black Americans. Using national data, Dr Bernal concluded that the effects of maternal employment and child care on children's cognitive ability are negative.
The Institute summarised her conclusions as follows: "Having a full-time working mother who uses child care during the first five years after the birth of the child is associated with a 10.4% reduction in ability test scores."
Other studies have pointed to increased behavioural problems among young children in child care, apparently due to separation anxiety and poorer child-parent bonding.
Additionally, studies in the US have found that infectious diseases, especially those involving hearing disability and middle ear infections, are three to four times as prevalent in child care centres as for children reared entirely at home, due to the close contact with other vulnerable children.
Mothers, who have been forced into the Faustian bargain of paid work, child care and unpaid work in the home, are finding increasing support from within their own ranks.
Suzanne Venker, a former middle school English teacher, now a full-time homemaker, has written an important book in the US called 7 Myths of Working Mothers.
In it, she argues that woman can't be successful in the workplace and at home simultaneously, but says women can achieve the balance they so desperately seek only by planning their careers around motherhood, rather than planning motherhood around their careers.
"If motherhood were viewed as the full-time job it is," she says, "it would not be considered something we could do on the side, and women would be less inclined to try to balance career and motherhood, only to discover, many stress-filled years later, that it cannot be done."
In the meantime, increased government funding for child care centres is not only applying a band-aid solution to the problems faced by working mothers, but is stunting the development of young children and creating social problems which will haunt society for many years.
And all this to help win an election ...
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council