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Like thousands of Australians who turned their backs on pandemic-weary cities over the past two years, Caitlin Wilson and husband Jonathon Peatfield moved to regional NSW to escape the rat race.
They had no idea that the competition for child care in bucolic Uralla, near Armidale in the state’s north-east, would be fiercer than in the cosmopolitan confines of Chippendale, in inner Sydney.
Both Caitlin and Jonathon work full time and want Matilda, 18 months, and Harrison, 3, in long day care five days a week.
“I put our kids’ names down at maybe four different day care centres and couldn’t get anything, not a single day, until February. So … six months’ wait,” Caitlin says.
Then from February, the family managed to get three days’ child care but in two different towns, 25 minutes apart.
“I really thought, to be honest — and I guess, this was naive of me — but I did think, when we were planning on moving to Armidale, that it would be easier to get child care. There’s just so many people and such a long waitlist in Sydney. But in the scheme of things, it was heaps easier in Sydney,” she says.
“[In Armidale] I’m asking every week: ‘Has anyone dropped out? Has anyone dropped out?’ And they’ve said: ‘No, basically, we’re not going to be able to give you another day unless someone leaves.’ So, until next year.”
Caitlin and Jonathon are among more than one in three Australians living in a childcare “desert”, according to the first-ever project mapping childcare availability in every neighbourhood in Australia.
In Armidale, 3.3 children compete for each available place, on average. Out of 53 neighbourhoods, 46 are classified as childcare deserts, meaning there are more than three times as many children as childcare places.
The data from the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Victoria University, supplied exclusively to the ABC, found stark geographical divides in access to child care. The project was partially funded by the Minderoo Foundation as part of the Thrive by Five initiative.
Child care is critical to women’s employment. This, in turn, drives economic growth, boosts financial security and improves social and health outcomes for women and families.
“The key finding is that where you live matters when it comes to access to child care,” says Peter Hurley, a Mitchell Institute education policy fellow and lead author of the report.
“People from higher socio-economic areas, who have greater advantage, have the best access to child care … and this happens more often in early learning than at any other stage in the education system.”
About 35 per cent of the population, or 9 million people, live in childcare deserts. That’s more than one in three Australians.
This includes 1.1 million Australians — more than 4 per cent of the population — living in neighbourhoods with no child care available at all.
At the opposite end of the spectrum about 3.3 million people, or 12.7 per cent of the population, live in childcare “oases”, defined in the study as a neighbourhood where fewer than 1.67 children compete for each available place. This is the equivalent of three days of child care per week.
Childcare oases tend to be concentrated in wealthier, inner-city areas. Childcare deserts are concentrated in city outskirts and regional and remote areas, where people tend to have lower incomes, less education and fewer social and economic resources.
“These maps point to a lot more than just childcare accessibility,” says ANU demographer Liz Allen, who is not connected to the study.
“Child care is this great equaliser, in so many ways. Child care can grant families the freedoms needed to participate in paid work. Child care also helps bridge the gap when it comes to early learning and then the pathway through education … and that determines lifelong opportunities in Australia.”
Ensuring universal, affordable childcare is vital to untangling some of Australia’s most stubborn and pressing demographic issues, Dr Allen says.
“We like to think in Australia that we are equal and everyone gets a fair go. But these maps show that’s not the case. Inequality starts before you get to school. It starts before you’re even born.”
Sprawling deserts, scattered oases
The Mitchell Institute study compares supply and potential demand for centre-based day care in 57,400 neighbourhoods and 8,700 childcare centres. That’s every registered childcare facility in every neighbourhood in Australia.
The researchers calculated the number of children per available childcare place based on the population aged four and younger, and whether the childcare centre was within a 10-minute drive for metropolitan neighbourhoods or a 20-minute drive for regional neighbourhoods. The study examined where a family lives, rather than where they work.
The median score (meaning half of neighbourhoods fared better and half fared worse) was 2.63 children per place.
Sydney’s childcare divide mirrors the so-called “latte line” which cleaves the city diagonally into the “haves”, living close to the city and throughout the north-west, and the “have-nots” in the west and south-west.
Childcare oases are concentrated near employment centres and in neighbourhoods where people earn more, have higher levels of education and job qualification, and more social and economic resources. These areas also tend to have less cultural and linguistic diversity.
In Australia, families who use child care earn nearly 1.5 times more than families who do not, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
Access to child care in Melbourne follows a similar pattern to cultural and linguistic diversity. Childcare places and English language-only households are both concentrated in the city centre and south-east, and along the road, rail and tram networks that create a starfish pattern radiating from the city centre.
People from non-English speaking backgrounds are more likely to live in multi-generational and multi-family households where unpaid, informal care is more readily available. Children in linguistically diverse households are one third less likely to use care outside the home — whether formal or informal — than children from households that only speak English.
Brisbane and south-east Queensland have long been the destination of choice for people migrating within Australia, especially young families. This may be part of the reason its childcare map tells a different story to other capital cities.
Much of Brisbane enjoys good access to child care. It also has less cultural and linguistic diversity than Sydney and Melbourne. Even so, childcare supply is more abundant in neighbourhoods north of the river, where people are more likely to only speak English at home.
Children in homes where only English is spoken are 44 per cent more likely to be in child care than those where a language other than English is spoken, ABS data shows.
The ACT has, on average, some of the nation’s highest levels of childcare access, education and socio-economic advantage. But Canberra still has a marginalised fringe, visible in the city’s far north and the north-west suburbs of Fraser, Dunlop and MacGregor in the Belconnen district, which are childcare deserts.
Families in these suburbs tend to have fewer job opportunities and commute longer distances to work. They often face more competition for childcare places and may have to travel further for child care than families living closer to the city centre.
South Australia is Australia’s most rapidly ageing jurisdiction and one of only two jurisdictions with a population plan to grow the population by boosting migration and fertility rates, and stemming population loss interstate. (The other is the NT).
Adelaide is typical of Australia’s major cities: childcare supply is concentrated in the central business district and more affluent inner-city areas. But beyond the city centre, childcare oases transform quickly into desert. Pockets of access at the city outskirts coincide with greenfield sites hoping to attract and support working families.
Much of Tasmania is a childcare desert, with a few scattered oases found only in Hobart. Many Tasmanians leave the state for post-school education and training, with those who return often settling in Hobart, Dr Allen says. As a result, Hobart’s population are more likely to work in professional and highly-skilled occupations, which generates both the demand for child care and the income to pay for it.
In Australia, mothers with a university degree who have children under five are 20 per cent more likely to use child care than those without a degree.
Western Australia is an outlier for a number of reasons. It has the worst childcare accessibility of the states and territories, with a median of just under 3.6 children per place, compared to 2.6 nationally. Families in WA use subsidised child care less and the state has lower levels of workforce participation among mothers with children under five, according to Dr Hurley.
However, WA’s early learning system is different to other jurisdictions because most children attend preschool at school, rather than at a childcare centre. Preschool is free in public schools and subsidised in non-government schools. These differences makes comparisons with other states more difficult.
Higher supply, higher fees
Unlike schools, which receive direct government funding, Australia’s childcare system is market-driven.
Providers can operate where they want and families earning less than roughly $355,000 can receive government subsidies worth up to 85 per cent for a first child. The lower the income, the higher the subsidy.
From March 7, the government increased the subsidy for families with more than two children, benefiting about a quarter of the 1 million families that use child care. It removed the $10,560 cap in December last year.
Government spending on childcare subsidies is expected to increase to an estimated $10.3 billion this financial year, up from $9 billion in 2020-2021.
The purpose of the subsidy is to help equalise access to child care, the Mitchell Institute’s Dr Hurley says. But when it comes to actually getting into child care, the market-driven model produces the opposite effect: providers flock to high socio-economic areas.
It could simply be that there is higher demand in those areas, Dr Hurley says. But the data points to another reason.
“The areas with more child care available … are also areas where providers charge more,” he says.
“They’re going where they can make more profit.”
This bites especially hard for people living in the outer suburbs and city fringes. People here not only tend to earn less, but also have more children and commute further to work, which can make some childcare centre operating hours completely impractical, Dr Allen says.
“Many of them actually wouldn’t allow the time needed for parents to commute, work a full day and then commute back to collect the child,” she says.
“We can see a very clear pattern of access determined by geography … [where] the families that are doing it the toughest, who need child care most, are the ones that are already vulnerable.
“If we were to then consider … access in terms of affordability and logistics, we would see a whole new level of inequality. And that spells quite dire circumstances for families.”
Paul Mondo, president of the Australian Childcare Alliance, which represents privately owned childcare providers, told the ABC he was not prepared to comment on research that he had not been given an opportunity to read.
He declined to answer questions about whether the government should take a more active role in regulating where providers operate and how much they charge.
Caitlin and Jonathon both earn high incomes, so aren’t eligible for subsidies. If the family can eventually get the five days of child care they’re seeking, it will come with a hefty price tag of close to $60,000 a year for both children — the equivalent of private school, Jonathon says.
“It’s astronomical … And I’ve no doubt there’s a lot of people working purely to send their kids to a centre or just to get back in the workforce but not really getting any extra dollars in their pocket,” he says.
Researchers agree. A 2020 Mitchell Institute report found parents are spending more, on average, educating their children under five than those parents sending their children to private primary schools.
Part of the problem is the design of the subsidy system, which means second earners in Australia (mainly women) reap little, if any, financial gain from working more than three days a week, according to a 2020 Grattan Institute report.
And yet every dollar the government spends on childcare generates a boost to GDP of at least $2, the report found. The most expensive option modelled, a universal 95 per cent subsidy, produced a return on investment of $2.25 for every dollar spent.
Modelling by Victoria University economist Janine Dixon found that government spending on extra child care would largely pay for itself through boosted economic activity, increased revenue from income tax and GST, and higher household spending as a result of greater family income.
“If you’ve got more economic activity, more GDP, we’re better off as a whole,” Dr Dixon says.
Child care as infrastructure, not babysitting
Two hours’ drive north-east of Melbourne, a stone’s throw from Lake Eildon, lies the historic township of Alexandra, known for its gold rush-era buildings and dramatic views of the surrounding Goulburn Valley.
More than 120 children under four live here, yet Alexandra has just one childcare centre, with 29 approved places. This works out to between 4.5 and 8.9 children per childcare place, depending on the neighbourhood.
If there are no places available, the next-closest providers are in Marysville or Yea, both half an hour by car.
It’s a perfect example of how childcare scarcity impacts families in regional areas very differently to those in cities, Dr Hurley says.
“If you’re in a metropolitan area and there’s no child care available, you might have to drive an extra 10 minutes to find another provider.
“But in a regional area with only one childcare provider, or even two or three, if there are no places available, you might have to drive an hour to get to the next-closest option.”
Ultimately, if people can’t get the child care they need, they’re not going to be able to work, Dr Hurley says.
The COVID-19 pandemic thrust child care and its pivotal economic role into the spotlight in 2020, says University of Melbourne sociologist Leah Ruppanner.
With the childcare sector on the brink of collapse and threatening to knock tens of thousands of women out of work — especially in health care and social assistance, where women make up nearly 80 per cent of workers — the government was forced to act.
Free child care was introduced in “a moment when what seemed impossible became possible: women’s work was seen as essential”, Professor Ruppanner says.
“[Child care] is a linchpin for maternal employment. When you erase this infrastructure, it has big knock-on effects; it’s like a domino.”
The ABC asked acting Education Minister Stuart Robert if Australia’s market-driven childcare system encouraged unequal access.
“The Morrison government takes its market stewardship role seriously,” a spokesman for the minister said.
He said the government was investing in initiatives that would provide information “to buoy competition” and “assist government to identify thin markets and areas of need.”
The Labor Party has promised more generous subsidies for all families earning less than $530,000, to a maximum of 90 per cent for the lowest-income families. It has also promised to review the model with the aim of introducing a universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy for all families.
“Both major parties are offering changes to the childcare subsidy but … to actually fix this issue around access, you’re going to have to look at more fundamental structural reform,” Dr Hurley says.
According to Professor Ruppanner, what Australia really needs is a paradigm shift.
“Accessible, affordable, high-quality child care — that’s the trifecta that needs to come together to move the dial on women’s employment,” she says.
“We’ve got to start thinking about child care as infrastructure — like water, electricity, internet, and public school … We think of it as babysitting or child minding but it’s actually early education.
“The learning gap is set at age three, so child care is one of the best investments we can make for minimising class-based educational gaps.”
Which is a big part of the reason Caitlin and Jonathon are still pushing hard for those last two days of child care.
“I really wanted to get back into the workforce … But the other reason is for the children,” Caitlin says.
“The educators, they’re fantastic. I mean, I’m a good mum but there’s just some things that they do that I just wouldn’t have thought to do, in terms of their development.”
It’s been tough, Jonathon says, but the family still counts itself along the lucky ones.
“Not everyone necessarily has the option [of childcare] … so the more of it we can grab for the kids, the better, because the development I’ve seen in both of them is just incredible.”
Reporting: Inga Ting
Design: Alex Palmer
Development: Katia Shatoba
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