Blimey, George Osborne has got something right! Astonishing scenes. Suppose the government thought it a good idea for us to eat more bananas and, recognising that bananas have become extremely expensive, offered those of us struggling to afford bananas a modest subsidy to make it easier to purchase bananas. We might reasonably object to this on the grounds that the government should not be in the business of subsidising bananas but it would be strange if those people with no desire to purchase bananas complained that the problem with the banana-subsidy is that it does not cover the purchase of apples.
That, essentially, seems to be the complaint from “stay-at-home” mothers appalled by the Chancellor’s attempt to make childcare for working parents marginally more affordable. It’s like whining that because Jack has received a present Jill must too. Otherwise it’s not fair.
Now one might object that it is the surfeit of regulation that does more than anything else to drive up the costs of childcare and that offering modest subsidies to parents completely fails to address that problem. That, however, is not the complaint we are hearing.
[Insert standard ‘to be sure paragraph’ noting that stay-at-home parents are grand people doing great work. It is a noble calling and no-one should think the less of them for the choices they have made.]
But these are, quite self-evidently, just that: choices. It may be that the government should reform the tax system to make staying-at-home-with-the-kids a more financially attractive proposition but there is no reason at all to link that to an argument about subsidising childcare. Mothers (it is usually mothers) who choose not to return to work are no worse off now than they were last month. They are no more “victimised” or “patronised” now than they were last week.
Many stay-at-home parents feel embarrassed at dinner parties, for example, because all too often, answering the “and what do you do?” question leads to polite smiles and embarrassment. Meanwhile, the true value and difficulty of their job often far outstrips that of the fashionable barrister they are talking to. Lifestyle choice, Mr Osborne? I don’t think so.
Let me suggest – as gently as I can – that if you’re the type of parent supping with fashionable barristers at dinner parties then it is likely that your stay-at-home status really is a lifestyle choice. Most people never attend dinner parties, far less do they socialise with even unfashionable barristers.
No sensible people think stay-at-home mothers should be stigmatised. Everyone, I think, appreciates that rearing children is hard work. Equally, it may be that in an ideal environment more mothers might stay-at-home for longer and that this might (just might) be best for their children too.
But few of us are fortunate enough to live in such a gilded world and many families need childcare out of necessity, not because it’s a “lifestyle choice”. Again, it may be that the government’s subsidies are available to too many seriously wealthy people but it is obvious that the chief beneficiaries are families on lower and middle incomes. You might argue that the government’s approach is clumsily targeted but making child care modestly more affordable is not an ignoble aspiration and it is certainly no insult to people with no interest in childcare at all (whether affordable or not).
If you want an apple what difference does the price of a banana make to you?