If ever there was a time when childcare, and care work more generally, has been thrown into the spotlight then the current pandemic is definitely it.
In addition to unexpected and last-minute school closures due to COVID-19, many working families have had the difficult task of caring for their unwell or isolating children sent home from school for fourteen days, while also needing to be in work themselves. As the Bevan Foundation has pointed out, this “risks parents falling into significant financial hardship as a result of having to miss work due to childcare commitments and risks virus spread as a result of parents deciding to go to work or as a result of other family members and friends entering the household to look after the child.”
Many parents have lost their jobs during the past year but still have dependent children to look after with no income to help them with that task. The call for free school meals to be extended during school holidays has been widely publicised in the media, while dependency on food banks has increased during the pandemic.
The Rowntree Foundation has published its third study in the Destitution UK series, revealing that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, destitution in the UK was rising. The pandemic only exacerbated a problem that already existed and has pushed families that were just about managing to keep things together, over the brink.
Children in Wales – the national umbrella body for organisations and individuals who work with children, young people and their families in Wales – has highlighted the heart-breaking nature of the situation here.
In terms of help with childcare, in areas of Wales deemed deprived, it is possible to receive 30 hours free childcare from the age of two years via the Flying Start scheme. In areas of Wales not deemed deprived the Welsh Government introduced the Childcare for Three and Four Year Olds scheme. The guidelines state, amongst other criteria, that in order to be eligible to apply parents of lone parent families need to be working and parents of two parent families must both be working.
This offer does not help parents who do not work but would like to return to work. Nor does it attempt to help those who do not wish to return to work as they want to care for their own children but consequently live in low-income or zero-income households. Even in families where both parents manage to work through a mix of full-time and part-time jobs, depending on extended family for childcare, the household income of many of these families still does not raise them out of poverty. They are the working poor who depend on government schemes such as Child Tax Credits and Universal Credit in order to survive. The limitations of these schemes mean that it is almost impossible for families to prosper, and for children to flourish, on so little money. There has been much research and many surveys highlighting the debilitating restrictions of these schemes. For further information see the ‘Impact of Benefit Changes’ chapter in the Child and Family Poverty Survey Report published in July 2020 by Children in Wales.
The report states that:
“Poverty happens when a family’s resources fall below what they need, including taking part in their local community or society more generally. The Welsh Government defines poverty as:
“A long-term state of not having sufficient resources to afford food, reasonable living conditions or amenities or to participate in activities (such as access to attractive neighbourhoods and open spaces) that are taken for granted by others in their society.”
In the ‘Low Wages’ chapter of that same report it states that:
“Low wages are one of the major causes of child poverty in Wales. Many respondents to the survey, as well as participants at regional child poverty events held across Wales, spoke of the paucity of decent paid work in some parts of Wales.”
A progressive, radical response to this problem would be to pay parents a good wage to look after their own children, pulling those children and their families out of poverty.
Along with considerably longer maternity and paternity leave, paying parents a decent wage for raising their children would be a step towards allowing women a real choice when it came to working or being at home with their children. It would also alleviate the problems caused by having to take time off work unpaid when your children are ill or self-isolating – something that causes financial hardship for many families.
Caring for others, cleaning, cooking – in short all that unpaid domestic work – is also known as reproductive labour. Marxist Feminists such as Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa have insisted for almost 40 years now, that reproductive labour is fundamental to waged work: it generates the workers of the future; it cares for the children of those in waged work as well as, in the sense of domestic work more generally, taking care of the waged-labourers themselves through household chores – all integral aspects of a capitalist society. Yet it is not considered productive enough to deserve a wage. In fact, a mother caring full time for her children is not considered to be working at all.
Paying parents a wage for their reproductive labour could work alongside a Universal Basic Income. The revolutionary element lies in the political significance of paying mothers / parents a wage for caring for their children: something that is missing if we discuss only UBI. If a mother’s reproductive labour was taken seriously and paid seriously, the repercussions would allow for all care work to be taken seriously: it would set a precedent for nursery staff to earn better wages, along with those working in care homes, including cleaners, and also those helping the vulnerable members of our communities. In short, many of the working poor and the unwaged poor would be brought out of poverty if their labour was fully acknowledged and if their wages reflected the essential nature of what they do.
When we open up the subject of payment for childcare it leads to questions about the care which we are likely to need at the end of our lives. Because when women care for their children without a wage they risk putting themselves in a vulnerable position when they are older. In Wales, as in the rest of the UK, if you receive benefits you do not automatically pay National Insurance contributions and aren’t necessarily prompted to do so either. Women (because the majority are overwhelmingly women) who cared for their own children without a wage, have often gone on in later life to care for elderly parents and sick spouses. Many of them do not even receive the full state pension for their lifelong care work.
As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”, but by forcing everybody that it possibly can into waged work capitalism has disbanded the community. This leaves hardly anybody around to help us care for our children and those vulnerable members of our communities who are in need of our company and support. The recent report by the Women’s Budget Group (an independent, not-for-profit organisation that monitors the impact of government policies on men and women): Creating a Caring Economy: A Call to Action is one example of an exploration into what a care-based economy could look like. It outlines “eights steps to create a caring economy, based on gender equality, well-being, and sustainability”. We can change the way that we organise ourselves as a society. There are even templates for us to follow or take ideas from and other organisations already looking for ways forward. It is possible to build a society on greater, more meaningful goals than financial profit.
We make the following demands:
- A Social Wage for Parents and Carers for all parents or carers until their children are 18 or until they have finished full time education – whichever is longest.
- A National Carers Pension for all those who leave waged work in order to care for a member of their family or community.
- An additional pension for all parents and carers who have taken time away from waged work to care for their children, family or community members.
- 5 years minimum maternity and paternity leave for all parents: keep jobs open to parents until all their children are of statutory school age.
- Free childcare from birth for those parents who wish to return to waged work after childbirth.
- Paid Parental Leave.
- A generously funded and robust National Care Service which would offer services for care in much the same way as a generously funded and robust NHS can offer services for health.
- A reorganisation of our society according to care – so that when we look after our children / parents / partners or vulnerable members of our communities, there are other people there to help us, along with an infrastructure that allows us the time to recharge emotionally and physically and the financial stability to make this possible in a happy, stress-free way.
- Green open spaces for all, with pollution-free air.
 Page 5 Child and Family Poverty Survey by Children in Wales, July 2020
 Page 17 Child and Family Poverty Survey by Children in Wales, July 2020
 Page 7 Creating a Caring Economy: A Call to Action report by the Women’s Budget Group