- Childcare isn’t relevant to every home – but, for such households, this claim is backed by evidence.
- Annual surveys show that for over half of such families, childcare is one of their top two outgoings.
- Only housing costs represent a bigger expense.
- However, the most recent data does not fully account for the cost-of-living crisis.
On August 8, DUP MLA Edwin Poots told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show:
“Childcare… is probably the biggest cost outside of mortgages, and sometimes bigger than the mortgages, for homes right across Northern Ireland.”
This claim is backed by evidence, with some caveats.
Childcare is not relevant to every household. For instance, some people have no children, access family support, or have children who are old enough to look after themselves. Mr Poots did not explicitly say that he was talking only about households where childcare is of potential relevance – but, given the context, it is clear that is what the DUP MLA meant.
He also said “mortgages” rather than housing costs. Many families do not own their homes (around 30% of NI homes are rented). This check proceeds on the assumption that the MLA was not trying to exclude non-homeowners and was instead talking about housing costs across the board.
With all that in mind, research indicates that childcare is the biggest or second biggest monthly bill for over half of NI families with children. Housing is the only outgoing that more families identify as a top-two expense.
NI charity Employers for Childcare (EfC) carries out an annual survey of parents and childcare providers. The most recent, published last November, found that childcare costs were the largest monthly outgoing for 34% of families and the second largest for 23%.
In comparison, housing costs (i.e. mortgage or rent) was the largest single outgoing for 52% of households, and the second largest for 29%.
Groceries were the only other bill to get into double-digit percentages as the largest or second largest monthly spend. 11% of families said this was their largest outgoing and 34% said it was the second largest.
These latest findings are similar to the results from the previous four EfC surveys.
In total, 81% of families said housing costs were in their top two biggest expenses, while 57% included childcare and 45% said groceries.
On that basis, Mr Poots’ claim is correct.
EfC casts a wide net to gather responses to its annual survey. Responses are open to anyone, and the organisation raises awareness using social and traditional media, its own newsletter, by asking childcare providers to pass the survey on to parents, and via various networks such as stakeholders organisations (e.g. parenting or children’s charities) and elected officials.
This means the survey is not necessarily representative of the population at large but, especially considering the high response rates, is a useful indication of the experience of families who use or might use childcare.
EfC also says the geographical spread of respondents broadly reflects the NI population.
It is worth noting that the latest survey, which included responses from 1,580 families, took place before the ongoing cost-of-living crisis really began to bite and, in particular, before the huge spike in energy costs.
Nevertheless, more families reported groceries as the largest or second largest monthly outgoing in comparison with previous years.
The data for this study, gathered in August and September 2021, may already have begun to reflect the rising cost of living post-pandemic.
Only 1% of families said heating was their biggest outgoing, and 5% said it was their second highest. Home energy bills could become a bigger factor in future surveys.
According to the most recently available OECD data, the average cost of a full-time childcare place in the UK represents 26% of household income for a couple on the average wage.
This is significantly higher than a large range of OECD countries, for whom the average is 10%.
For a closer look at what childcare options are available in Northern Ireland, go here.