For the last week – in corridors, in playgroups, in professional groups, and over the dinner table at home – extensive conversations have been had about the new childcare package and how individuals will fare, and what decisions they might make in the next few months as a response to either increased or hugely decreased funding.
Much ire, in particular, has been directed at women in high income households, for their frustration that their childcare benefit has been slashed. I’m talking about these conversations between women because men have been notably absent in these conversations; predominantly, life will go on as normal for most of them.
Medicine is an industry which is a good example of how these childcare changes will affect professional women, because it encompasses a broad range of wealth and income. The income disparity between the lowest and highest income earners can be 50-fold; many women are primary breadwinners; many other women are the lower income earner in a dual professional family; and universally, regardless of pay, the hours are long and involved and so support in raising children is required.
So when medical women talk, it is a rare opportunity to hear concurrently from those who struggle to pay their bills and from those in the top 5% of wealthy households in this country. And the conversation we have been having is about who deserves government support for childcare, when the conversation we should be having is that tinkering around the edges of a broken system will not work for anyone.
What I have noticed is that these conversations are based on myths and outright lies spread by the government in promoting this new package.
Firstly, means testing is not some glorious form of income redistribution where money flows like warm honey from those who can afford it to those who don’t have enough. This is the primary argument to disenfranchise women who live in high income families from childcare support – and it is a great argument for the government because it is hard to deny that people earning $350K a year can actually get by without extra money.
It also makes women in lower income families feel better about what is a pretty insignificant change to the support they get. But means testing is a sham. Multiple studies have shown that it rarely, if ever, saves money, and is often more expensive than universal schemes, which are cheap to deliver.
If everyone has access, then you don’t need a bureaucracy to administer payments. The amount it costs the government to employ people to chase up tax returns and payslips, check forms, and enter details on cumbersome IT systems (which also cost the government money to set up) exceeds the money saved from denying payment to a relatively small number of people, and is, quite frankly, money that would be better spent on actual early childhood education.
Secondly, means testing forces people into poverty traps. Especially the lower income people it is meant to most benefit. One of the predominant conversations that are being had this week is whether or not it is ‘worth going to work’ for hundreds of thousands of women. Acknowledging that there is a fundamental privilege in having that choice – the reality is that work and childcare has more ‘costs’ than just money.
Dual working families still need to fit household tasks in around working hours; dual working families miss time with young children, miss preschool concerts and birthdays, miss family time as parents juggle their work hours around each other. As childcare becomes more expensive – even for wealthy families – it becomes harder and harder to justify having both parents work.
The primary breadwinner starts to wonder if the small amount of extra money is really worth his having to do three hours of housework at the end of a workday; the primary carer starts to wonder if the dual responsibility of the thought load and hours at work are justified.
And because of ongoing gender inequity – we know that there is a gender pay gap, we know that women tend to work jobs that are paid less than the jobs men work, we know that Australia has a stronger culture of a ‘primary breadwinner’/’primary carer’ split than anywhere else – it is usually women who end up dropping hours at work, or not working at all. This creates any number of poverty traps.
The gain in seniority and pay is restricted to one income earner rather than two with long term impacts on family income. There is a marked disincentive to never allow family income to rise beyond the means test thresholds because the cost in lost benefits is too great, which hurts overall productivity. And the lost income is disproportionately visited upon women, who end up with less superannuation, less personal savings, and less of a financial reserve in the event of marital breakdown or loss of a primary breadwinner.
There is a reason that the most rapidly growing demographic among the homeless are women over the age of fifty – women who have given their lives to their spouse’s careers and caring duties towards children and parents, and who are now left financially insolvent. Means testing childcare is a poverty trap for all women, and absolutely emblematic of the ways in which society devalues women and our labour.
Thirdly, income is a terrible indicator of wealth. Despite literally hundreds of years of data on this, it is utterly ridiculous that this even needs to be pointed out. Many wealthy people have or report no income; many people with higher levels of income will struggle financially. Any number of common scenarios reflect this.
The asset rich retiree with little cash flow but ample resources and stability is arguably more wealthy than a low income family with a low but stable cash flow. A single mother with a higher income but specialised care needs for a disabled child and sick elderly poor parents may struggle to put food on the table and cover medical bills. So means testing on the basis of income simply does not make any sense for any payment, and is doomed to disadvantage some of the people who most need support, while giving money to those who don’t need it as much.
Fourth, it is impossible to consider this issue without also considering the other budgetary changes, new and proposed. It is frankly disingenuous for the government to suggest that the only way to increase support for lower SES families is by taking from higher SES families, while also delivering corporate tax cuts, additional tax cuts for the wealthy, and extra spending in questionable areas such as huge payments for wealthy private schools.
Finally, the government has craftily made this an issue of working women. Trying to capture the zeitgeist of supporting women, they have chosen this method of paying lip service to it by marginally increasing payments to poor families – not enough to necessarily support genuine workforce participation for this group – while making demons of women in higher income families, for daring to suggest that early childhood education should be universally provided.
But childcare is not just an issue for women – it is an issue for men and children as well. Good quality early childhood education is as necessary for fathers to work as much as it is necessary for mother. And it has absolute benefits for children. We need to stop thinking about the support for early childhood education as a form of welfare, and start thinking about it as an absolute societal good with multiple benefits to all members of society – men, children, and women.
This is an issue that disproportionately affects women from all walks of life – so women should not be pitted against each other in this issue. If, hypothetically, means testing the wealthy genuinely meant significant increases in payments for poor families, a genuine increase in childcare access and quality, and genuine change for poorer women in terms of workforce participation, then the accusation of rich people whining about the loss of middle class welfare would be justified.
But as this is just a political game for the government, compelling us to argue over peripheral issues and fight for the scraps of what is left after the government has chosen to deliberately decrease its income via tax breaks to those who least need it, we need to change the discourse. This isn’t an issue of middle class welfare, or taking from the rich to give to the poor. This is smoke and mirrors bad policy which is designed to win cheap votes while not actually helping anyone.
We need to call out the government and ask for genuine overhaul of our early childhood education system, and advocate for a model where access is universal, quality is high, and the workers paid equitably. We can undoubtedly afford it if we choose to prioritise it – just as we can afford public schools from age 5 and universal free healthcare.