Can mothers afford to work?

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In spite of efforts to improve the situation, mothers still face substantial hurdles in undertaking paid employment. New research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that for those who do manage to work, childcare arrangements are a diverse mixture of carers, cost and quality. Government initiatives to increase the availability of childcare places have a substantial shortfall to address while measures to increase the "affordability" of care, such as the Working Families Tax Credit, may have limited impact on the work choices of mothers.

Main Findings
Mothers, particularly those with younger children, are substantially less likely to be in paid employment than women without children. And there is no sudden increase in employment when the youngest child starts school: school does not entirely resolve the childcare issue. If they do work, mothers with children are much more likely to be in part-time than in full-time work compared to women without children:
- 36 per cent of mothers with partners do not work, while 37 per cent work part-time and 28 per cent work full-time (compared to 27 per cent, 22 per cent and 51 per cent for women with partners without children)
- 61 per cent of single mothers do not work, while 20 per cent work part-time and 19 per cent work full-time (compared to 32 per cent, 12 per cent and 56 per cent for single women without children)

Some mothers may choose not to work, but there is also new evidence that mothers are constrained in their ability to work. About one quarter of non-working mothers report they would like to have a regular paid job, but are prevented from seeking work by having to look after children. Approximately 1 in 10 mothers who are working part-time say that they would work longer hours if there were some form of suitable childcare available.

The availability of formal childcare places falls far short of those required to offer a place to every child of a working mother. There are:
- 8 day nursery places for each 100 children under the age of 5
- 7 childminder places for each 100 children under the age of 8
- 6 out-of-school club places for each 100 children aged 5 to 7

Relating the availability of the childcare places to the proportion of mothers in employment across local authorities shows that there is a link between childcare availability and the likelihood that a mother works. But whether this means (a) that mothers are less able to work in areas with fewer places or (b) that areas with more mothers working and demanding care naturally draws forth an additional supply of places cannot be determined.

Informal care is an important source of childcare for working mothers. Some 62 per cent of pre-school children and 77 per cent of school children (under the age of 12) of working mothers who use non-maternal care receive some care from relatives, friends and neighbours.

Childminding is the most popular type of formal care for working mothers, yet the availability of childminder places has been declining over recent years. Out-of-school clubs and holiday schemes are used by only a very small proportion of school children of working mothers under the age of 12 (less than 4 per cent)

Working mothers, with at least one pre-school child, who pay for care spend an average 13 per cent of their net income on childcare, while those with only school children spend an average of 7 per cent during the term and 14 per cent during the holidays. For some groups this proportion is much higher: single mothers with pre-school children who are working full-time and paying for care spend almost a quarter of their net income on childcare.

Childcare policies which aim to make childcare more affordable, such as the nursery education grant and the Working Families Tax Credit, can have some impact:
- A lower childcare price for formal care is associated with greater use of formal care and a higher quality level even if there is no change in work behaviour.
- But the generous childcare subsidies under the WFTC are predicted to have relatively limited effects on employment, raising the employment rate for single mothers by 3 percentage points but having virtually no impact on the employment rate for mothers with partners because of the partner's increased WFTC benefit payment when the mother is not working.

Hence, childcare subsidies may have high costs for the government with little impact on mothers' employment, although greater use and quality of formal care may be a welcome side-effect.

"Mothers' employment and childcare use in the UK" is available from the IFS.

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