Value of Care

Value of Care

International Women’s Day passed on the 8th of March, and for a short while the media was ablaze with commentary about issues affecting the modern woman. Whilst there are limitless problems in which the fairer sex is over represented, a couple of recurring issues seemed to be receiving the most airtime.

The growing pay gap between genders, now at 17.4%, piqued many. The ability not only to grow a family, but also a burgeoning career – nicknamed ‘Having It All’ – was given a run. And the fact that the GST is applied to tampons and pads was labelled a “monthly gender tax”.

However, when the subject of motherhood and parenting was broached, it was raised in a manner that made it seem as if having a baby was but a speed bump in the quest for a career. No one attempted to make the distinction between a rich life and a life of riches, and no one stressed the value of care. Success is usually defined in purely monetary terms, and the obsession with career is a reflection of this.

Stephanie Peatling, in the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote that if an extra 6% of women worked, the GDP would grow by $25 billion. On the other hand, Bobby Kennedy once said that GDP  “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

However Anne Manne, in a 2008 Quarterly Essay titled ‘Love and Money: the Family and the Free Market’, tried to make a bit more sense of the role motherhood plays in our lives, and how the devaluing of care has done feminism no favours. It pays to discuss a few of its more salient points in this article.

In Australia, there is a big disincentive to both having children and caring for them. Many women with a career find current maternity leave arrangements too meagre, and often putting your career on pause for children can spell the end for further progress or promotion.

Since the dual income family has become the norm, couples now enjoy greater purchasing power than ever before. However, this has meant that prices have increased for everyone – here we have the Two Income Trap. It means that if the main breadwinner in a family doesn’t have the average salary of two, the minority earner will not be able to pause work to care for children.

This is a problem. Australia has an aging population, the Grey Dawn, and only has a fertility rate of 1.9 – we need about 2.1 just to replace once another, and we need care workers to help the aging baby-boomers. The Baby Bonus brought in under Howard was a Coalition attempt to raise the fertility rate. Costello told families they should have three children – one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country.

Now, Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme gives parents four and a half months parental leave pay at the national minimum wage. That works out to just over $10,000. Tony Abbott and the Coalition is much more generous, promising to provide six months paid parental leave at full replacement wage up to $150,000 per annum, should they win the election.

That’s the incentive to, first, having the children. However, caring for children is also undesirable for a mother that wants to return to work quickly, or for both partners who cannot afford to stay home and care for the baby. The government currently provides a rebate on childcare for 50% of out-of-pocket expenses, helping families return to work.

So, we’ve got an incentive to give birth (Baby Bonus), an incentive to stay at home with the baby for the first few months (Parental Leave) and we’ve got an incentive to return to work (Child Care Rebate). If it’s that simple, then why aren’t we having more babies?

Australia does not have quality early childhood care. Workers are young and underpaid in what is a demanding job. The government regulates a centre to allow one caregiver per five babies. It seems quite reasonable, but with two workers, if one is holding and feeding a baby, the other is caring for nine babies.

The stress caused by not being comforted, played with, or attended to can be damaging to a baby. A US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study showed that children who endured 30 hours of care per week as infants were three times more likely to have aggressive behavioural problems later in life than children who had been in care for under ten hours per week.

Basically, as outlined in the book ‘Why Love Matters’ by Sue Gerhardt, parents’ love has the most effect on how a child turns out. Evidence shows that a child who is hugged is far more likely to succeed than a child who is not given affection.

Sweden had widely available, subsidised, high quality care, which was used extensively in the 70s and 80s. But parental leave was increased in the 90s (to what is the most generous in the world- 480 days per child) and now there is little use of early childhood care. If possible, parents would rather stay at home with their baby than work on their career. 63% of all Australian parents said they did not want childcare because they would prefer to care for children themselves – it is just that they, mostly, cannot afford to do so.

Recently, the passing of the National Disability Insurance Scheme shows how much Australians value care. Funding a generous parental leave package should be a top priority for Labor and the Coalition, but both parties fall short of what is necessary.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, took just two weeks of maternity leave. This can’t be seen as an example, as devaluing parenting and care helps no one. People want to have children if they can afford to care for the baby themselves. Australia needs to raise the fertility rate to provide care to the aging baby-boomer generation, and we need that care to be given by people who were, in turn, cared for themselves.