I could understand why my bank manager was looking at me like that. It did sound a bit stupid. “You’re about to start a job, and that means you need to extend your overdraft?” he said, dubiously. After years of scratching around as a student, I was finally about to draw a wage – but first, I needed to get myself just a bit deeper in debt.
I have two children, so before I could set foot in my office, I needed somewhere to put them, and childcare has to be paid for in advance. That’s no minor outlay here in the UK, where we have the highest childcare costs relative to household income of anywhere in the world. A survey by the Daycare Trust and Save the Children explains how much of a barrier and a burden this can be, particularly to families on low incomes. Of the parents questioned, a quarter said that the cost of childcare had caused them to get into debt, but it’s the poorest families (those with a household income of under £12,000 a year) who experience the most crippling effects.
While the better-off have to compromise on swimming lessons and music tuition to cope with higher-than-inflation rises in nursery fees, the more impoverished cut back on food or heating to make up the difference. And sometimes, ends simply can’t be made to meet: a quarter of those in severe poverty said that they had given up work because of childcare costs. A third of them had passed on a job offer for the same reason, and a quarter reported that the expense of childcare had prevented them from taking up education or training.
Rather than facilitating work, childcare becomes a daunting obstacle, keeping parents out of the workplace – and the poorer a family is, the more likely it is to remain in poverty for the lack of money to cover nursery fees. Single-parent families without savings or access to credit are effectively shut out of work. The government likes to talk about getting people off welfare and into the workplace. “Over the last decade, thousands of people were simply abandoned to a lifetime on benefits, and a staggering 1.84 million children are living in homes where no one works,” said employment minister Chris Grayling last week. Right-wing analyses blame the “lack of a work ethic… fuelling unemployment”.
But it’s practical, financial limitations more than nebulous psychological causes that are keeping parents from becoming employees, and the government’s actions so far seem likely to worsen the childcare bind. Working Tax Credit was sliced in this year’s budget, so that it now covers only 70% rather than 80% of childcare costs – a huge difference in the finances of those who need help the most. As the cuts agenda combines with a sneering rhetoric of disdain for the unemployed, this just seems like one more way of keeping the poorest poor, from cradle to grave.