If childcare costs more than my salary, don't expect me to return to work

Polly Dunning has calculated that if she returns to full-time work her family would have to fork out $32,900 in childcare fees for her son, Alfred. Photo: Martine Payne

Polly Dunning has calculated that if she returns to full-time work her family would have to fork out $32,900 in childcare fees for her son, Alfred. Photo: Martine Payne

It seems every few weeks there is another well-meaning article about why women with children should return to work regardless of the extraordinarily high cost of childcare. And they make excellent points, particularly about the hit to superannuation and career progression that women suffer as a result of long career breaks.

But why should women have to just put up and shut up while we all benefit from the work they are doing? Why do women have to choose between effectively working for nothing, or buggering up their super and career? We're always between a rock and a hard place, it seems.

The repeated calls in such articles to just stop calculating childcare fees as a percentage of the woman's wage are justified. It absolutely should be seen as a household expense, not a mother's individual expense. But what if that "percentage" is 100 per cent, or more? What happens when childcare fees are actually more than a woman's wage?

The fact is, if a family can have more money in their budget with only one parent working, that's probably what they will do.

The new changes to the Childcare Rebate set to take effect from July 1, 2018, don't help this situation for many families who have no choice but to pay high fees for childcare. In fact, for many living in high-cost cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, the new changes will see them with even less money in their pockets.

While the changes to the Childcare Rebate are excellent for low income families (as they should be) and are great for encouraging women from these families to return to the workforce, women in families with middle or high incomes will be significantly less supported and encouraged to return to work. Some of them will be (and already are) actively discouraged.

One of the major changes in the Childcare Rebate is a cap placed on the childcare rate the government will pay. At the moment, the government pays 50 per cent of the actual cost of childcare, while from next July it has decided the day rate will be capped at $115.50, well under the average cost of childcare in many suburbs (once you finally score a place!).

For my own family (and we have just one child), if I returned to work full-time we would be out of pocket $32,900 for childcare (according to the calculator on the federal Department of Education's website). To put that in perspective, that's about the same as the annual tuition fee for senior students at some of Sydney's most elite private schools.

And if I have another child (which I am hoping to), suddenly the cost is more than my take-home wage. It would actually cost my family about $2000 per year for me to work full-time (and I'm not alone). 

Sorry, but expecting us to just cop that expense is bullshit.

It's all well and good to outline all the ways a woman is ruining her future financial and career prospects, but in a competition between going to work and selling the house, choice is an illusion.

The costs of not working are also very real. A woman on an average salary who takes 10 years out of the workforce stands to leave an $85,000 hole in her superannuation balance. Taking a career break to raise children leads to a 17 per cent gap in lifetime earnings, not to mention the loss of leadership progression.

Basically, women lose either way. And we should be angry.

We have some of the most highly educated and productive women in the world. An increase of just 6 per cent in the number of mothers working would lead to a $20 billion win for our economy. 

So it is everyone's responsibility to make sure women are actually supported not just to re-enter the workforce, but to benefit financially from their own work.

Women should not just suck it up and take home little to no money – or even pay – for the privilege of working. Particularly when the community, economy and budget all benefit from our work. It is appalling for our society to benefit from the work of mothers while effectively not paying them.

We are caught between sacrificing our career and future finances for our family, or sacrificing most, or all (or more) of our salary for the good of the country and promise of future reward.

And even if we do refrain from calculating out of pocket childcare costs as a percentage of the woman's wage, we should still be ropeable about it accounting for a third of household income for many families.

Husbands should be up in arms about the drain on their household budget, the disincentive for their wives to progress in their career, and the lack of superannuation that follows. Because when wives end up with less super, husbands end up with less communal money in their retirement too.

Even when calculated as a percentage of the household income, we shouldn't be putting up and shutting up. We should be calling for change.

What we need is structural change in the childcare and education sectors. What we need at the least is regulation of childcare fees. If the government has decided that $115 is the maximum childcare should cost per day, then they should regulate it. Market forces will not bring down the cost (it hasn't yet, and we've been waiting a while), particularly while getting a childcare place in Sydney is so hard that pregnant women need to put their child's name down before they are even born.

Ideally, what we need is free, public, early childhood education (which we know improves children's school results later). Those advocating for women to return to the workforce because of the huge potential risks in extended career breaks are right in many ways, but by suggesting that the solution is the responsibility of women ("just go back to work regardless of the cost"), they forget that this problem isn't the responsibility of individual women.

Government, communities, and the economy in general benefits exponentially from every ounce of paid – and unpaid – work women do. So it is our collective responsibility to make sure they're supported to do that work. And to be paid for it.

  • Polly Dunning is a Fairfax Media columnist.

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