Editorial Notes

The problem with child care subsidy: The Korea Herald

A woman cradles a child as she sits before the Han River and the city skyline in Seoul on Aug 28, 2015.
A woman cradles a child as she sits before the Han River and the city skyline in Seoul on Aug 28, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on September 15, 2015, The Korea Herald argues for a tenable way to offer high-quality child care.

The government’s plan to limit free child care center services to some 6 to 8 hours per day for nonworking mothers starting next year has led to a storm of protests by its opponents who cry discrimination.

Take away something one is used to having, especially something given free of charge, and anger and resentment are bound to follow. 

However, the current system of providing free 12-hour child care for all children up to 2 years old needs to change, as it is hardly sustainable. 

It was rash of the government to pledge free child care service for everyone in the first place; to carry on with a system that is untenable would be irresponsible. 

The universal free child care service was introduced in 2013 with the aim of encouraging mothers to return to work, in order to boost the country’s very low birthrate. 

However, in three short years, several unintended side effects of the universal free child care service have become apparent, not to mention the budgetary constraints. 

Because children are signed up for full-day programs, whether they are actually at the centre for the whole 12 hours or not, child care centers prefer to enroll children of nonworking mothers, who, on average, drop off the children for 7 hours daily. 

The government pays the child care centres 720,000 won (S$856.80 ) per child and naturally, many centres found ways to enroll more children of nonworking mothers than children of working mothers whose children are at the center for the full 12 hours.

The sudden introduction of universal free child care service also created a surge in demand which resulted in uneven quality of facilities and teachers. 

Already, several high-profile cases of child abuse at child care centres have been blamed on the government-subsidised program.

At the root of the universal child care issue is money. This year’s budget for child care subsidy for children 0-2 years of age stood at approximately 2.97 trillion won. 

Instituting the new program is expected to result in about 36.5 billion won in savings.

The 6-8 hours per day restriction will be augmented by a voucher for 15 hours each month, which the parents can use at their discretion. 

Beyond that, parents ineligible for the all-day child care service will need to pay out of their own pocket. 

Exceptions to the half-day child care service rule will be made for those in special circumstances, however.

Childhood education experts point out that child care at home is best for those in the 0-2 age group. 

Indeed, the government claims that the proposed change is designed to steer more stay-at-home mothers into taking care of children at home. 

However, the proposed new system does not provide sufficient incentives doing this. 

While the cash subsidy of a maximum of 200,000 won each month given to mothers of 0-2 years old who do not use child care centers will be increased to about 300,000 won under the new scheme, mothers who opt to enroll children at half-day programs will not receive any cash subsidy.

Child care subsidy programs must be consistent and sustainable. They should also be equitable. One option the government should seriously consider is having child care service users pay according to their income level.