Thursday, September 10, 2009

Child care subsidies and maternity Leave: New incentives and unintended consequences

The maternity leave debate was raised yesterday with an angle I had not thought about before, but being an economist, really should have. It suggests that maternity leave has the unintended consequence of encouraging women with young children to work rather than stay home with their children. Rather than bringing families together, it actually tears them apart. Let us examine this claim.

The article claims that more than 80% of children under 5 years of age attend formal day care in Sweden, where 12 months maternity leave is the norm. This figure must surely be closer to 100% of children aged 1-5, given that mothers (or fathers) are paid to stay home for the first year of their child’s life. In Australia, the number of children under 5 in formal day care is currently less than 40%, and much of that I would imagine is part time.

Both the pro and anti maternity leave debaters need to get straight the purpose of their policy. That way we can examine whether there are possible unintended consequences which can undermine the suggested outcomes.

For example, the pro-maternity side appear to want to reduce the cost of child rearing to working mothers. Fair enough. But the unintended outcome of a maternity leave is to decrease the costs of child rearing for working mothers, but not stay-at-home mums. The new incentive structure encourages mothers to choose work over staying home with youngsters.

Complementing maternity leave is the current child care benefit scheme. I have mentioned before how cheap child care can be after all the subsidies are considered – about $15/day/child. This policy increases the net benefits of working for mums, as the cost of working, in the form child care, is reduced. These subsidies provide incentives for mothers to return to work quickly after the birth of their children.

Sweden is the classic case study of the pro-maternity leave lobbyists, but I wonder if they have really examined the outcomes of Swedish policies in detail.

Consider this comment (all quotes from here): 

Policies such as childcare and parental leave have meant that the majority of Swedish women are employed in the labour market and remain there throughout their lives, with only minor interruptions after the birth of a child.


from 1990-1998 the percentage of women engaged in part-time work fluctuated between 43 and 47 percent, while since then it has decreased to between 33 and 36 percent.

It appears more kids in full time, rather than part time, child care is what you get.

The following graph is of the period following the introduction of 180 days parental leave, at 90% of previous salary, in 1974 in Sweden. This was extended to 9 months in 1978.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the state and the municipalities both covered approximately 45 per cent of the fees, leaving the remaining 10 per cent to be covered by parental fees.

Again, subsidising child care works, in that it increases the uptake of child care. Not subsidising it works too. Cost of childcare exploded in the 1990s, and

…by 1998, 17 per cent of the costs of childcare were being covered by parental fees

The graph above clearly shows this impact. But what of the 2000s boom? We have another policy change to explain that one.

In July 2001 the Swedish government expanded childcare to include children of parents who are unemployed and in January 2002 to include children of parents who are on parental leave looking after a sibling (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2003). In addition, in January 2003 all children aged 4-5 became entitled to 525 hours of free attendance in childcare per year.

It is time for the pro-maternity leave lobby to ask whether having almost all of our children aged 1-5 in full time child care is a desirable social outcome.

My gut instinct is no, but I have no reason for this position. My son is in family day care two days a week, and he started this at 18months of age. He enjoys it, and he learns to socialise with other kids. Since putting kids in child care is a voluntary action of parents, my inner economist says that it must be the best outcome in the circumstances. Of course, the circumstances are the direct result of government policy tweaking the incentive structure.

In the end, it appears maternity leave policies do not bring families closer together, but create a generation where parents and children become strangers.

1 comment:

  1. I missed this when you first posted it. It'd be interesting to hear your thoughts on the Abbott vs Rudd parental leave schemes.

    But the question that I think really gets overlooked is which social good are we trying to promote here? Are we trying to encourage parents to stay home with their children for longer? Or are we trying to keep more women in the workforce?

    I've read an article which suggests that parental leave schemes (and flexible work arrangments) can actually do more harm to women's employment prospects than good. Employers in the UK have apparently started showing some reluctance in hiring women for certain positions because they think they're likely to lose them for a year or more of maternity leave. I'll see if I can dig up the article for you.