How soon is it okay to put a baby in daycare? The answer seems to be, not nearly as soon as most new parents need to go back to paid work. The taxpayer provides them with paid leave that increased yesterday from 14 to 16 weeks. But four months at home with their baby is not enough for most. The last time they were surveyed on the subject, 70 per cent of mothers said they would like a year of paid leave. The most this country has done for them is to require employers to give them unpaid leave for a year and the survey was asking why so few of them were taking full advantage of it. Most cited "financial pressure". Only 7 per cent of those who went back before the year was up did so because they "felt ready" or "wanted adult company".
New Zealand, as our report yesterday revealed, is lagging the developed world in paying maternity leave. Australia provides 18 weeks paid at its minimum wage. Britain provides 39 weeks, the first six weeks at 90 per cent of the mother's previous weekly income. Sweden provides 16 months, which means babies will be walking before they go to daycare, and Slovakia pays parental leave for just over three years, which is closer to the age at which children used to begin to spend time away from home at a playcentre or kindergarten.
Times have changed. Two-income households have set today's living standard. Couples are more willing to share parenting tasks but neither partner wants to be away from his or her career for too long. Babies are in daycare and working mothers daily juggle the demands of their job with their arrangements for care. They are on the stressful front of social change and this country could be doing better for them.
New Zealand's social support is more generous to older generations than to young families. People of 65 and over, likely to be living in a freehold house, receive state superannuation regardless of other income they may be earning and the rate is increased annually with average wages. Young families are facing house mortgage costs beyond the previous generation's imagination. They do not qualify for income support unless their earnings are modest. A sole parent on a benefit is getting relatively poorer as the rate is increased with inflation, not the faster rising average wage.
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There is a case for more child support. A second staged increase in paid parental leave next April will lift the entitlement to 18 weeks, the OECD average. It will then match Australia but the payment in New Zealand will remain below the minimum wage unless it is lifted before then. The Prime Minister wants to do something more about child poverty. Indexing benefits to wages would do so.
The Government could also look at increasing parental leave more quickly. The bill by Labour MP Sue Moroney that it voted down in February would have provided six months' paid leave at an annual cost of $170 million. The sum is not frightening in a budget heading for a surplus. If parents want to keep their babies at home for at least six months they should be applauded and helped.