Orla O’Connor: Government must provide childcare and increase social welfare
Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2022
At 9.1% in June, inflation is at levels not experienced in almost 40 years. Each week brings news of further price increases, with inflation expected to top 10% this year. But the impact of soaring prices is not felt equally. We know from evidence published by the Central Statistics Office in June that inflation cuts deepest on those with the least.
In general, women have fewer resources, less wealth, lower incomes, and greater unpaid care responsibilities. This limits their choices around paid work and means greater reliance on low paid and precarious work. 6 out of 10 low paid workers are women. Lone parents, 86% of whom are women, have less wealth, savings, land, business wealth, or vehicles. They are less likely to own a home or to be able to access credit.
All of this renders women less able to bear the impact of rising costs, with migrant women, Traveller women, and disabled women particularly affected.
As government agrees a September budget aimed at addressing the spiraling cost of living, it is clear they must address the disproportionate impact of rising costs on women. Government should take a twin approach by addressing the cost of living through income supports and investment in public services.
Family income supports, pensions, unemployment and disability supports all play an important role in reducing poverty and inequality. They also lead to increased household spending and, in the long run, to higher tax revenues.
Adequate income supports to keep people afloat now are essential and must be immediate. Social welfare rates need to rise by a minimum of €20 per week to keep up with inflation and ensure progress towards an adequate income. Anything less is effectively a cut to the incomes of people already struggling to keep their heads above water.
In addition, the budget must outline a significant, sustainable, and ongoing investment in public services that will reduce the impact of high costs.
The high cost of childcare is an issue for all parents but it disproportionately affects women, making it more difficult to work or get an education or training. It is clear that the current approach to Early Years Care and Education has failed to deliver affordable childcare for women, children, families or workers.
We need a universal, public childcare model that guarantees access to affordable, quality childcare for families alongside better pay and conditions for workers. Investment in care would allow more women to take up paid employment and have greater choice with regard to employment. Coupled with increased wages in the childcare sector, these changes would result in gains for the economy as well as society. Investment in a public model is also the best value for public money given shocking reports of large chains paying 7 figure dividends to shareholders in 2020, despite receiving millions from the State in Covid-19 grants.
With services costing an average of €221.58 per week in Dublin, investment of at least €250 million is needed to make a real impact. Government can begin to deliver a universal model in Budget 2023 by focusing on delivering free or low cost childcare for low-income workers and lone parents, in particular.
Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services
Rising living costs make it more challenging for women to escape their abusers and even forces women back to abusive partners when they can’t afford to live alone.
The recently published Third National Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence Strategy is the most significant step forward by government to tackle the root causes of gender based violence and place victims at the centre of services and judicial process. It will require significant state investment across all Departments to achieve its very welcome ambitions. With 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence, the costs to society including the economic costs are high.
Budget 2023 must tackle the cost of violence to women by significantly investing in the delivery of the implementation plan of the Strategy, including the accommodation plan and refuge spaces.
Reproductive health services
Enabling universal access to free and accessible contraception is fundamental to achieving gender equality, reducing poverty, protecting against adverse health conditions, and prevention of unplanned pregnancies.
The free contraception scheme for women aged 17-25 introduced in last year’s budget was a very welcome development. But around 1 in 5 pregnancies among 26–35 year-olds are crisis pregnancies. Cost must not be a barrier to contraception for women of any age.
With the significant rise in living costs, there is an urgent need to ensure that women are not priced out of the most effective forms of contraception, such as the copper coil, which require women to pay a significant amount upfront.
Government must expand the free contraception scheme to women aged 26 and up in Budget 2023 so that income doesn’t impact access to the most effective forms of contraception.
Shaping our future
The choices Government makes in Budget 2023 will be critical to the living standards of everyone in our society, particularly those who have least income and access to resources. This Budget provides the government with an opportunity to shape our society to a more equal, just, and sustainable one for the future.
Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council
This article first appeared in the Irish Times, on 01 August 2022