Access to affordable childcare is key to reducing EU inequalities 

It’s becoming more common for younger children to be cared for outside the home in daycare centers, kindergartens, pre-primary schools, and other early years settings. 

On average across EU countries, around a third of children under the age of three visit childcare centers outside the home, rising to almost 90% of three to five-year-olds. 

Affordable childcare has many benefits for children and families, but there are still significant inequalities in who is able to access these services. 

The benefits of high-quality childcare 

It’s estimated that, as of 2020, 24.2% of children in the EU were at risk of poverty. These levels vary throughout Europe, with the highest rates being in Romania, at 41.5%, and the lowest in Slovenia, at 12.1%. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to higher levels of poverty. 

According to a report by the OECD, accessing high-quality childcare has numerous social and economic benefits that could help to reduce inequalities in the EU. 

The research shows that young children from low-income households benefit the most from access to affordable, high-quality childcare as it can protect against some of the effects of poverty and strengthen equality of opportunity for the children. 

The World Bank Group highlights its lasting effects on cognitive and social development, including language. These effects can be seen throughout childhood, even up to the child’s labor market outcomes at the age of 18. 

Another benefit is that it can make it easier for the child’s parent or carer to access employment opportunities or education, which can boost the family income and this further helps the child’s wellbeing. Ultimately, it can help to break the cycle of disadvantage. 

However, children from low-income families are still consistently the least likely to use childcare, despite the benefits. Participation varies, and the gap between the most socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged groups is still significant. 

The numbers also vary between EU countries. For example, in some countries, like Iceland and Denmark, children’s participation tends to be high regardless of income. But, in other countries, such as France, the UK, and Ireland, there’s a large gap in participation. 

Childcare and gender equality 

Childcare is also central to gender equality. Women are still overwhelmingly the main caregivers, and childcare costs are a big restraint for some women in the job market. This contributes to the gender pay gap, among other things. 

In the EU’s “Care Strategy”, one of the primary focuses is on supporting gender equality, and infrastructure like affordable, high-quality childcare plays an important role in this. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, shortcomings in the care systems became more apparent as women were much more likely to take on unpaid work during this time. 

According to an EIGE report, 94% of employed women were responsible for unpaid care work at least several times a week, compared with 70% of employed men.

Women in many EU countries are penalized in the workplace when they become mothers and making childcare affordable, accessible, and high-quality could help to mitigate this. 

Policies to increase participation 

At the moment, most EU countries provide support to reduce the cost of childcare, but the actual policies on the type of amount of support vary greatly. 

In Denmark, Finland, and Swede, childcare is considered an essential public service, and citizens are guaranteed access to childcare from the age of one – and sometimes earlier. Similar provisions exist in other EU countries, including  Estonia, Slovenia, and Germany.

Elsewhere, however, legal entitlements to childcare can start much later. In France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Luxemburg, there is free childcare available for three years olds and this typically lasts the duration of the school day. 

In Austria, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland one year of pre-primary education is compulsory. In the Czech Republic, children are entitled to two years of childcare and in Hungary, they are entitled to three years. 

These legal entitlements don’t mean that childcare is free, although it is free or subsidized in some countries. The most common way to do this is through fee reductions. In some countries, such as Nordic countries, fees are heavily subsidized. 

In some other countries, there are set ceilings for fees that providers can charge and these fixed amounts are decided by national governments. 

Another support option is tax-based support, which is less common. One of the biggest problems with these systems is that there can be long delays. This can reduce some of the incentives to work, particularly for low-income families.

The authors of the OECD report point out that EU policies could boost participation in childcare. Some of the disparities between EU countries and childcare takeup can be explained by how the systems are structured and what type of financial provisions are in place. 

According to the authors, expanding legal rights to access high-quality childcare, along with policies to improve financial help, would help to ensure greater participation. Consistent policies for financial assistance across the EU could be key in reducing the current inequalities. 

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