In the parlance of modern politics, childcare is a barbeque-stopper: an issue that gets the largely disengaged suburbanite masses talking. Presumably these are the same people who spend much of their time talking to colleagues around water-coolers.
Yet again it's in the news, this time because of the 'problem' of non-working parents taking childcare places at the expense of working parents. Ho hum, yet another way to talk but not act.
It frustrates me that the issue has become a 'we need more Government funding' issue, along with health, education, criminal justice and just about every other manifestation of the welfare state. This is one issue where a market-based solution, rather than a government-centred one, would achieve plenty.
Here are the important facts, as I see it:
1. More and more parents are seeking childcare for their infant children so that these parents can re-enter the workforce.
2. Childcare workers are chronically underpaid.
3. The government pays a large subsidy to childcare centres, thereby artificially lowering the price to the consumer (ie, parent). Without this subsidy, childcare centres cannot charge competitive prices.
4. Strict regulation of the sector has meant that childcare providers have been slow to expand their operations.
And the solution? Let the market set the price. With high demand and limited supply, the price will inevitably rise significantly. This was have several effects.
Firstly, more childcare providers will be willing the enter the market and expand due to the profits to be made.
Secondly, some parents will find the price too high and instead choose to take care of their infant at home. Other parents will be prepared to pay. Logically, the determining factor will be whether the price of a day's childcare is higher or lower than the pay from a day's work for the parent who is otherwise taking care of the child, with a premium factored in for the benefit derived from spending a day with one's child. Or if they really hate the kid, a premium for spending the day with work colleagues instead.
Thirdly, firms responding to the skills shortage will increasingly introduce their own childcare services, either provided on-site or subsidied by the employer, in order to attract and retain staff.
Fourthly, childcare workers will find their pay increasing dramatically. Without an artificial cap on prices, parents will be charged the true value of providing the service including a decent income for the professional taking care of their offspring.
The problem that has pervaded the debate so far is that most critics of the status quo seek to have their hundreds-and-thousands topped cup-cakes and eat them too: they want low prices, high wages and abundant places.
It's a fool's paradise, and an impossibility, too.