CHILD CARE INQUIRY: Should parents or paid strangers raise children?
by John Ballantyne
News Weekly, May 10, 2014
A Sydney-based group of stay-at-home mothers has challenged the reigning orthodoxy, supported by both sides of Australian politics, that mothers should be encouraged to seek paid employment and have their children raised by paid strangers.
The group has told the Australian government Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Learning that the unpaid work mothers perform in the home should not be devalued or ignored.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
In a submission to the inquiry, the group said: “The idea that parents who provide primary care to their children are unemployed or not contributing to the economy is downright dishonest and redundant.
“Current childcare and taxation policy settings fail to adequately acknowledge the important work that stay-at-home parents provide, and fail to adequately support parents who wish to provide this form of care for their own families.”
The submission’s authors described themselves as “a Sydney-based mothers’ group who are all, without exception, university-educated, with a significant number holding post-graduate degrees, including two Masters’ degrees and one PhD.
“We currently have around 25 members ranging in age from 30 to mid-40s with something in the region of 75 children between us and more currently on the way….
“While the majority of mothers in the group dedicate themselves to the full-time care of their children in the home, some members also study or work part-time.”
In November last year, Joe Hockey, Treasurer in the newly-elected Abbott government, requested that the Productivity Commission undertake an inquiry into child care and early childhood learning. The public were invited to offer their views, but only within the inquiry’s very restricted terms of reference.
Mr Hockey instructed the commission to collect evidence from Australia and overseas to show how the greater use by parents of institutionalised child care (as opposed to home-based parental child care) would not only benefit the economy by increasing the number of mothers in paid employment but also benefit their children by “optimising [their] learning and development”.
The Productivity Commission received 450 submissions and 701 comments from the public. It will deliver a draft report in early July and its final report to the Abbott government on October 31, 2014.
In its 16-page submission, the Sydney-based mothers’ group said of the scope of the inquiry: “The stated objective of increasing the rate of women’s participation in the paid workforce is misguided and short-sighted. Women who leave the paid workforce (temporarily or permanently) to give birth to and care for their own children perform an essential task in generating and forming the next generation of workers and taxpayers. This is especially true for women who have larger families.”
In making its plea that unwaged at-home mothers deserve greater consideration, the Sydney mothers’ group was careful to couch its arguments in such a way that it fell within the Productivity Commission inquiry’s restrictive terms of reference.
The group showed how allowing women greater scope to raise their own children at home would, in the long-run, actually do more to satisfy the inquiry’s objective to promote “increased participation in the workforce, particularly for women”.
It quoted Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that the more children a family has, the less likely it is that both parents will remain in paid employment. Therefore, encouraging larger families will increase the number of future workers and taxpayers, including women.
The group illustrated its case with the following scenarios. The first one went like this: “If an Australian female attends university and begins full-time work at the age of 25 she will have contributed 40 years of productivity to the Australian economy by her retirement at 65.”
By contrast: “If that same woman leaves the [paid] workforce and has two children, returning to full-time work when those two children are in school, she will have contributed 33 years of labour over her working life as well as the possible future 80 years of labour of her children. (A collective labour contribution of 113 years.)
“If that woman does not return to the workforce but decides to stay home and have, say, three more children, she will have contributed six years of her own productivity and a further possible 200 years of future productivity by her children (five children at 40 years each).
“Even if she had three girls (who may also leave the paid workforce) and two boys, she would still have contributed 80 years of future labour by her sons and a possible 120 years’ labour of her daughters to this country’s future economy, making a possible total contribution of 101-200 years, a much greater possible contribution to the long-term productivity of this country than if she returned to work after two children.”
The Sydney mothers’ group concluded: “Women who raise larger families are creating Australia’s future ‘human capital’. It is vital that the government seeks to support those women who are ensuring the future viability of the Australian labour force by raising a large family and consequently shoring up the future productivity and economic strength of this country.”
The group warned about the unintended long-term consequences of Australian couples having fewer children. It said: “The fertility rate is falling and the labour force is shrinking. Since 1976, the total fertility rate for Australia has been below replacement level.
“By focusing solely on increasing and maintaining women’s participation in the [paid] workforce, the government risks further amplifying Australia’s low fertility levels.”
In 2000, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, sought to give mothers greater choice between paid employment or work in the home. His government introduced Family Tax Benefit A, targeted at low and middle income earners, and Family Tax Benefit B, which was made available to any traditional family relying on one breadwinner’s income.
Both big business and the powerful feminist lobby have looked with no friendly eye on Family Tax Benefit B. Various experts have called for its abolition on productivity grounds. Under Labor’s Treasurer Wayne Swan, it was subjected to a means test.
Another Howard government initiative, the baby bonus, was discarded by Labor in last year’s Budget, scheduling it to cease after March 1 this year. According to the Sydney mothers’ group, “The current Liberal government has not indicated any plans to reinstate it.”
In its submission to the Productivity Commission, the group was adamant that benefits and tax relief for couples with children do not constitute middle-class welfare, a derogatory term commonly used by both right-wing economists and left-wing feminists.
One member of the group, Rosina Gordon, a stay-at-home mother with five children, recalled: “When I was completing the forms for our mortgage I had to fill in a box for occupation. I wrote ‘full-time mother’. I was astounded to note that, when our approved documents were returned to us, the bank had classed my occupation as ‘unemployed/welfare recipient’.”
Susan, a mother of eight, said: “Perhaps one of the smallest things that would mean the world to me and other stay-at-home-mums would be that, in all the paperwork we complete for various agencies, ‘stay-at-home mother’ become a recognised and valued category under employment/occupation descriptions.
“Perhaps in time this might lead to the recognition of our worth to Australian society and the cessation of the belittling of stay-at-home mothers, as if our efforts are not recognised or valued.
“It is strange that early childcare workers, nannies and carers are praised for their occupation but stay-at-home mums are considered ‘unemployed’ simply because they do not receive a wage.”
The Sydney group quoted Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2001, showing that “unpaid work in Australia constitutes approximately 50 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP)”.
“And yet,” said the group, “although the stay-at-home mother has forgone income and career opportunities, amongst other things, to use her time, unpaid, to care for others, there still seems to be little regard for her effort, and there is an astounding lack of recognition for the contribution of her unpaid work to the economy.”
A supporter of the group is Angela Shanahan, a journalist and mother of nine. In an article with the headline, “Give income support to families, not the childcare industry” (The Australian, March 3, 2013), she observed: “Only the ‘strong modern’ family with an employed mother is now recognised as ‘productive’, relegating the business of having and raising children to a mere expensive hobby.”
Some opponents of home-based child care have tacitly acknowledged that providing more institutionalised child care, in opposition to the clear wishes of many parents, is ultimately self-defeating. None other than powerful Australian feminist Anne Summers admitted, in her book The Misogyny Factor (University of NSW Press, 2013), that increases in childcare funding have not resulted in reciprocal increases in the uptake of childcare services.
The Sydney mothers’ group said: “Of particular note is the fact that there was only a 20 per cent increase in the number of children using childcare, even though the Australian government had more than tripled spending in this sector.
“In the next four years, spending is projected to grow by 15.3 per cent, but the number of children in care by just 2 per cent.”
Joe Hockey also instructed the Productivity Commission, as part of its inquiry, to demonstrate the contribution that “access to affordable, high-quality child care” is supposed to make to “optimising children’s learning and development”.
The Sydney mothers’ submission declared that stay-at-home mothers believe that “their children’s education and moral formation are paramount” and that they wanted to have “the greatest influence in their children’s lives”.
Marion, a mother of four and a home educator, protested: “I didn’t have kids for someone else to raise them.”
John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly and a former president of the Family Council of South Australia.
“The case for the stay-at-home mother (SAHM)”, a 16-page submission of the Awesome Mothers Association (Sydney, 2014) to the Australian government’s Productivity Commission Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Development: Submission 303.
Angela Shanahan, “Give income support to families, not the childcare industry”, The Australian, March 3, 2013.
Angela Shanahan, “Stay-home mums productive too”, The Australian, February 22, 2014.