child care and growth
More affordable child care would help some mothers into paid work
From the age of five, Alison Mbekeani dreamed of becoming a scientist.
Following that dream took her to the University of Liverpool’s School of Tropical Medicine, then to Sierra Leone amid the Ebola outbreak in 2014, then to Durham University for her PhD.
But becoming a mother to two children put a brake on her career.
A couple of spots at nursery cost about as much as she was earning -- more once she factored in travel costs.
She does not expect to return to the lab until her children are 16.
Dr Mbekeani is not alone.
One survey in 2019 found that child-care responsibilities led 29% of mothers with a child under 14 to reduce their working hours, compared with just 5% of fathers.
That greatly damages their earnings.
A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (ifs), a think-tank, found that in the ten years following the birth of their first child, mothers’ average hourly wage fell from 98% of average male earnings to 83%.
In a recent interview with Mumsnet, a parenting website, Boris Johnson said that better access to child care “would have a massive benefit for the economy”.
In an ideal world, the government would not have to worry about any of this.
Based on their preferences and potential earnings, parents would make a rational judgment over whether to outsource child care or keep it in-house; it might make sense for them to borrow to cover short-term costs, for instance.
The question for policymakers is how much parental behaviour does reflect actual preferences and how much it is driven by constraints.
If preferences are pulling women away from work, then government intervention to subsidise child care could just end up helping richer parents who would have paid anyway.
Some data point in this direction.
Three- and four-year-olds are eligible for 15 hours of state-funded child care, as well as another 15 hours when their parents work full-time.
But around half of toddlers do not use their full entitlement.