Guest Blog: Childcare is key to freeing women from poverty and inequality

Iona Brown of Close the Gap

Iona Brown,
Policy and Parliamentary Manager,
Close the Gap

Women are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to experience deeper poverty, and find it harder to escape poverty. Because women continue to do the bulk of unpaid childcare in Scotland, women’s poverty is inextricably linked to children’s poverty.

Women’s propensity to be primary carers shapes how they engage with the inflexible labour market which traps women in low-paid work. Providing affordable, accessible high-quality childcare is therefore a critical anti-poverty measure.

Close the Gap and One Parent Family Scotland have launched a joint vision for a childcare system that centres women’s equality, prioritises positive outcomes for children, and addresses women’s and children’s poverty. It’s a set of principles for high-quality childcare provision that is flexible, accessible and affordable for all families, including those on low incomes. The principles are endorsed by a broad range of 25 civil society organisations, including The Poverty Alliance.

Research has found mothers are twice as likely to report the availability of childcare had a “big impact” on their ability to work than fathers. Women routinely struggle to balance work with childcare, which results in them being clustered in part-time work. Since part-time work is typically concentrated in lower-paid, insecure jobs, this restricts women’s progression opportunities and contributes to the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is also a key factor contributing to women’s higher levels of poverty.

Single parents, 90% of which are women, disproportionately experience poverty. Young single mothers are at particular risk, with more than half (55%) living in poverty in Scotland. Disabled women and racially minoritised women are also at acute risk of poverty, with poverty rates among these groups being disproportionately higher than average. Disabled women and racially minoritised women also face compounding inequalities that create further barriers to their equal labour market participation which results in their concentration in low-paid and insecure work.

The limitations of the current childcare system often determine whether women have a job, the type of job they have, the hours they can work and how much pay they get. This has a particularly profound impact on single parents. Issues around accessibility and affordability of childcare prevent many mothers from being able to work the hours they need or want, and further intensifying their experiences of poverty. Since women’s poverty is inextricably linked with children's poverty, the creation of an accessible and affordable childcare system can help tackle women’s labour market inequalities, and thus also women and children’s poverty.

Moreover, for many families the high cost of childcare is a significant barrier to financial stability, and means childcare is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Three-fifths of parents have reported difficulties affording childcare, with single parents and parents of children with additional support needs being more likely to report difficulties. High childcare costs are particularly problematic for single parents, as it restricts their labour market participation, drives their higher rate of poverty and leads to more debt accumulation.

Close the Gap has welcomed the expansion of the funded entitlement to 1140 hours, but it should be seen as the starting point of reform, rather than the end. 1140 hours of childcare only equates to the school day and is delivered on a term-time basis. It therefore doesn’t enable women to work full-time if they need to or want to. Research from the Scottish Women’s Budget Group highlights this inflexibility, with two-thirds of women reporting the delivery of these hours don’t cover their childcare requirements due to its lack of flexibility. The inflexibility of the current childcare system is a particular issue for single parents and those who work atypical hours and shift work, who face greater challenges in finding childcare that suits their needs and may struggle to arrange childcare on short notice. Furthermore, the rigidity of childcare provision combined with the inflexibility of the labour market further compounds inequalities caused by the current system. This, in turn, places additional financial pressure on women, prevents many women from accessing employment, training or education, and further compounds women’s experience of poverty.

Additionally, the current childcare expansion has not reduced the need for parents to purchase expensive, top-up childcare. The high cost of childcare is particularly challenging for parents of disabled children, as they face higher than average childcare costs. These above average costs can act as a barrier to employment and also contributes to higher poverty rates amongst families with a disabled member. Three-quarters of parents and carers of disabled children have had to reduce their hours or leave their job entirely due to difficulties in accessing appropriate childcare, which further exacerbates their experiences of poverty.

Women’s experiences of managing childcare is shaped by the multiple intersecting inequalities they face. However, there is a significant lack of intersectional data on how the current childcare system is meeting the needs of different groups of women such as disabled women and racially minoritised women. Research by Close the Gap found that accessing affordable, appropriate childcare was identified as a significant barrier for many racially minoritised women, and a particular challenge for some migrant women. For migrant women, the absence of informal networks of family or friends close by to help with childcare increased the burden of childcare, limiting their ability to enter the workforce or increase their working hours. Considering racially minoritised women disproportionately experience poverty, the limitations they face to labour market participation is likely to sustain, if not worsen, the poverty they experience. There is a significant need for more granular data to better understand women’s diverse experiences to ensure that services are designed to meet the needs of their family.

Childcare work is significantly undervalued in Scotland’s economy, resulting in the low pay which characterises the overwhelmingly female-dominated sector. Many childcare workers are already on poverty pay and are now impacted by the harshest effects of the cost of living crisis. The undervaluation of childcare is driven by stereotypes around gender roles and assumptions about men’s and women’s skills, capabilities and interests. Women are seen as ‘natural’ carers, and therefore better suited to caring professions. These factors contribute to the undervaluing of the skills needed to do childcare work.

The undervaluation of childcare work and the sector-wide low pay has created workforce recruitment and retention challenges, which in turn impacts the quality of childcare services. Action to improve the pay, and terms and conditions of the childcare workforce would have a significant positive impact on gender equality, as women make up 96% of workers. Increasing pay would also act as an economic imperative for more men to enter childcare, which would reduce the acute levels of occupational segregation which characterise the sector, whilst also improving women’s financial security.

Importantly, childcare is not recognised as critical social infrastructure. Within mainstream economics, spending on childcare and social care is categorised as current consumption, rather than capital investment. Unpaid care is not recognised at all. Despite evidence from Scotland and internationally highlighting investment in care infrastructure stimulates job creation, community regeneration and employment opportunities for women, it is still overlooked in Scottish policy making. Recognising childcare as social infrastructure is key to creating a wellbeing economy and is an important enabler of paid work and women’s socio-economic equality. Reframing how childcare is seen in the economy is also essential to ensure there is sufficient investment and policy focus to addresses the undervaluation of the workforce and deliver high-quality services that meet the needs of women and their families.

The principles created by Close the Gap and One Parent Families Scotland are intended to shape the next stages of Scotland’s childcare offer. These principles should underpin a system that promotes women’s socio-economic and labour market equality, advances children’s rights, and addresses women and children’s poverty. The principles are:

  1. A system of childcare that puts choice for all families at the heart of provision.
  2. A universal funded entitlement of 50 hours per week for children aged 6 months and above that is free at the point of use for all families.
  3. A high-quality service which delivers positive outcomes for children and realises children’s rights.
  4. A diverse and skilled childcare workforce that is valued, fairly paid and gender balanced.
  5. Flexible delivery that enables families to access childcare when they need and want it.
  6. Investment in childcare should be considered as necessary infrastructure for a sustainable wellbeing economy and good society.
  7. Work towards a childcare system that is not based on profit making.
  8. Investing in childcare is good for the economy.

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