The new cabinet wants to offer (almost) free childcare to all working parents. The planned changes should “make it easier for parents to combine work with care”, NRC wrote in a report about childcare (14/1). The new system should also reduce inequality of opportunity. However, in order to achieve these objectives, it is insufficient to look only at the costs of childcare. The reality is more complex.
Verena Seibel in Mara Yerkes are respectively assistant professor and associate professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at Utrecht University.
For our recently published research Towards a new childcare system?, for which we took a representative sample of Dutch parents, we studied what they know and think about childcare and the childcare allowance. This confirms the necessity of the planned system change, in which government money will soon be paid directly to childcare centers. The allowance system will be abolished “so that people no longer get lost in complicated arrangements or have to deal with high recoveries”, according to NRC.
Our research shows that parents often struggle with the application procedure for childcare allowance. The burden of childcare for parents is not only financial, but also administrative in nature. They have trouble collecting all the data that needs to be provided and they are afraid of making mistakes. It is therefore necessary that the new system is set up as simply as possible for parents and childcare centers.
Application is not easy
Is it clear when you are eligible for childcare allowance? It seems so easy: if you work you can apply for the childcare allowance, and if you don’t work you can’t. But it’s not that easy. Because what about people who are temporarily out of work? Or follow a reintegration process? During our research, we asked whether parents think that someone is or is not eligible for the childcare allowance in different situations. What seems? Only half of them know that the allowance is also accessible to unemployed parents who are following a reintegration process. Low-educated parents, who are most at risk of unemployment, are more often unaware of such rules than highly-educated parents.
Also read: Who benefits the most from (almost) free childcare?
Another major problem is the system’s emphasis on childcare as a labor market instrument. As a result, childcare is not accessible to all children. Several interviewees argued in NRC for attention to the perspective of the child; in a ‘universal’ system, all children are entitled to good quality care. If the focus of the new system is on facilitating work and care, it will remain focused on parents. Putting the child at the center increases both accessibility and equality of opportunity for children, fathers and mothers.
To start with the children: a major obstacle in the current system is the distinction between childcare (which is accessible to working parents) and early childhood education (VVE, which is aimed at vulnerable children). Early childhood education has been specially developed for children who need extra support in their (language) development. But our research shows that almost half of the parents have never heard of VVE. Combining early childhood education and childcare will lead to equal opportunities for all children. All children then make use of one childcare center that pays attention to individual differences and needs.
The system’s emphasis on childcare as a labor market instrument also hinders gender equality. Childcare is too often seen as a means of increasing women’s labor market participation. As a result, women are portrayed as primarily responsible for caring for children. Because, according to this reasoning, if the woman did not work, childcare outside the home would not be necessary.
In order to actually increase equality of opportunity between men and women in the division of work and care, less emphasis must be placed on the importance of childcare for parents and more on the interests of children.
Our research shows that simply offering a facility, such as (almost) free childcare, does not in itself create equality of opportunity. Not even in combining work and care. In order to actually create equality of opportunity, attention is needed for the complex interplay of costs, accessibility and quality. Right now there is room for an integrated approach.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 20 January 2022 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of 20 January 2022