Stay-at-home mothering might just be a lifestyle choice for George Osborne but ‘informal’ childcare turns out to have an economic tag of £323 billion – equivalent to 23 per cent of GDP. So why hasn’t he or any of his Ministers mentioned it? Why the reluctance to reconsider what counts as valid economic activity, or the cost to child welfare of relegating it, argues CPS Research Fellow Kathy Gyngell.
Last March a stay-at-home mother, Laura Perrins, ambushed Nick Clegg on his live radio show and tore into Coalition family policy: “I'm just wondering why the Coalition is discriminating against mothers like me who care for their children at home. You probably think what I do is a worthless job”, the former barrister fumed.
She was seething at the loss of her child benefit – taken away because her husband’s salary was above George Osborne’s new cap. Nor was she about to gain from the generous new tax-free childcare payments – promised only to dual earning families with children under five. It just added insult to the existing injury of discriminatory taxation of one earner married families.
Ministers' language about helping 'hard-working families', she went on, was simply 'offensive'. It implied that stay-at-home mothers were not considered hardworking.
Mr. Clegg was clearly taken aback. He said he did not have a problem with mothers who chose to give up work to raise their children. There would behelp for them as well, he volunteered, from his new policy initiative - free nursery care for two year olds.
His defence was hardly the recognition of ‘hands on mothering’ that Perrins had accused him of devaluing.
Can we entirely blame Mr. Clegg? His viewpoint reflects a culture in which discussion of the role of maternal contact in child wellbeing has been assiduously avoided for some time.
It has, as Dr. Aric Sigman said last week to a Mothers At Home Matter conference, been hijacked and replaced with a debate on working parents, or the merits, demerits, cost and accessibility of daycare.
Since the 1970s, thanks to women’s representatives and women in the media in particular, demand for equal opportunities has dominated the political agenda. The value of and need for motherhood has been ignored. Legislation such as the Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act, and Maternal and Parental Leave Regulations 1999, were admiral in many ways. But each rested on the assumption motherhood is replaceable and replicable. Science in fact demonstrates the opposite.
Over this same period labour force statisticians and economists, in and outside the Equal Opportunities Commission, obsessed over the under-utilization of women in the workforce; women described as economically inactive though most have responsibility for their children.
Though the proportion of women at work was higher than ever before by 2002; though, as an ONS publication of the time reported, their economic activity rose 35 per cent between 1984 and 2002 (eclipsing parallel falls in male economic activity) economists still considered women to be the key untapped source of labour.
Further leaps in women’s ‘economic activity’ have not stopped this pressure. Mothers are needed to go back to work to make up for the aging population; they are a critical source of labour to be tapped in view of unsustainable demographics; they are needed for their contribution to GDP.
The recent Women's Business Council report, published by Maria Miller’s Government Equalities Office, Maximising women's contribution to future economic growth, pushes these agendas further. ‘Sustaining strong and achievable economic growth’ and creating ‘a fairer and more equal society’ rest, the report proposes, on equalizing male and female labour force participation.
In light of this dominant ideology it was perhaps predictable that the Coalition would disassociate themselves from any hint of social conservatism; that government would continue Labour’s policy of encouraging mothers back to work and further investment in formal child care by way of both direct and indirect subsidies, tax credits, and tax breaks to smooth women’s path back to work.
This was the policy backdrop to George Osborne’s interview on the World at One in August that further infuriated Laura Perrins. He declared that opting to raise your own children instead of delegating the task to others was a ‘lifestyle choice’.
“The Chancellor’s glib comment was not only inaccurate, it was patronising and demeaning”, she said. “Mothers like me who have relinquished careers in order to bring up our own offspring are not frivolous dilettantes who have opted to indulge some casual whim. Actually, we do a hard job. In my view, it is the most vital one of all.”
The reality is that motherhood has “to sing for its supper in order to gain a seat of respect at the table of grown-ups”, as Dr. Sigman put it.
Though startled by the stay-at-home mother backlash into giving a small transferable tax concession, overall the Coalition remains impervious. Mothers’ demand for their unique role in meeting their children’s needs and their worth to society to be recognized falls on stony ground.
But the publication of a so far unremarked upon ONS report last February could change this.
As part of the Measuring National Well-being Programme - David Cameron’s initiative for looking at 'GDP and beyond' - the ONS has price tagged the value of informal childcare.
Managing not to mention the word mother once, the ONS has painstakingly measured and valued what it calls, “the output of the household production of childcare”. This includes all care, over the 24-hour day, given by parents, family members and friends without any money transaction taking place.
It had something to measure this against – the increasing cost of ‘formal’ childcare, which for under-5 years olds increased by 36.4% between 1995 and 2010.
The value of informal childcare for 2010 was no less than £343 billion (valued using gross wages), the equivalent to 23% of GDP.
If you assume the average mother at home contributes 40 hours a week of unpaid child care over and above that of working parents, you can conclude that she and her sisters are worth about £100 billion a year to the economy, or about £50,000 per annum per mum.
Faced with a continuing backlash from mothers infuriated that the uniqueness of their role in advancing childhood wellbeing is considered a subject of speculation; evidence of the damage of daycare on children’s psychological wellbeing; and a £100 billion tag on the childcare role (aside from the value of their nurturing) Government may soon have to reconsider its devaluation of motherhood as of less productive importance and social significance than paid work.