Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Grandparents to the rescue…?!

The high and rising cost of professional childcare has been in the news recently, but there has been little mention of grandparents, who provide a substantial proportion of the child-care needed by young families.

At the simplest level, rising costs of childcare mean more children living in poverty. In March this year, Save the Children expressed concern that 3.5 million children in the UK are living in poverty, the majority of them in working households. Commenting on the recent welfare reforms in the UK (‘Universal Credit’), Save the Children pointed out that these would hit poorer working mothers hardest, whereas evidence from abroad suggests that enabling mothers to work reduces child poverty.

In reaction to the recent media focus on childcare costs, many commentators have noted that excessive increases in costs can mean the second income in two-income families is almost entirely spent on childcare, so that there is scant financial incentive to continue that employment. However, dropping out of employment during children’s early years can have enduring impacts, in terms of lost skills and/or failure to progress in a career structure, resulting in lower income and job satisfaction when resuming work. And of course it is most often women, as mothers, who are the ‘second’ workers. This scenario reinforces gender inequality in earnings in later life.

The Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) survey has been following the lives of thousands of children right across Scotland from infancy through to, currently, the end of primary school, but further sweeps of data collection are planned, up to teens. A recent GUS report looked at the role of grandparents in the lives of young families when the children were aged 6 years old, in 2010/11.

The report found that virtually all GUS children had at least one grandparent (99%), and 87% had at least one grandparent living nearby (within 20-30 minute drive). GUS has found that grandparents are a key source of regular informal childcare for parents throughout children’s early years, and that when children started school, reliance on grandparents increased markedly, to 67% among parents who used any childcare. Starting school, with the ensuing see-saw need for childcare depending on whether it is term time or holidays, poses a challenge for families, so this is a stage where grandparents can most support working parents by providing ‘flexible’ childcare. This generally requires grandparents to be not fully employed and, one would expect, to live reasonably close by.

One finding of the survey was that children in the highest income households were more likely to have no local grandparents (22%) than children in the lowest income households (8%). Nevertheless, in term-time, the proportion of children receiving ‘some hours’ of weekly grandparent care is highest among higher income groups, ranging from 43% in the highest income group to 24% in the lowest income group. And in the school holidays, receipt of childcare from a grandparent for more than 14 hours a week shows a similar pattern, ranging from 23% in the highest income group to 11% in the lowest. So, higher income families seem to be able to make more use of grandparent care, even when they are less likely be living ‘locally’. Perhaps is it to do with age (given that grandparents of children in higher incomes group tend to be older), and whether still employed. In this regard, the recent removal of compulsory retirement ages, and the prevailing economic situation and its impact on pensions, might mean that in subsequent survey sweeps it will be found that fewer families are benefiting from grandparent care, further exacerbating the adverse impacts of rising childcare costs.

Grandparents play an important and multi-faceted role in children’s lives, and in addition they are an invaluable childcare resource for parents, especially when children start school and flexible care is needed. It could be argued that this role is becoming more important with recent changes in welfare, and ever-increasing childcare costs, but clearly, working families will face challenges if more grandparents tend to continue in fulltime employment until older ages.

Pamela Warner, CRFR

Read the full GUS report at: Jamieson, L., Warner, P., and Bradshaw, P. (2012). Growing Up in Scotland: The involvement of grandparents in children's lives, Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

In addition to being a Co-Director at CRFR, Pam is Reader in Medical Statistics and is a member of staff at the University's Centre for Population Health Sciences (CPHS) teaching on their Master in Public Health.

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