As the late Nelson Mandela said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children’. Yet, the Chancellor of the Exchequer continued to cut social services like childcare and early years support in his Autumn Statement – this year, by £3 billion, deepening the crisis of living standards across the UK. He made much of his national infrastructure plan, with its £5 billion investment for roads and railways, yet infrastructure (‘the basic physical and organisational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society’) is more than just physical. This government is continuing to neglect the essential social infrastructure of this country.
Social infrastructure includes things like childcare, adult social care and education. It supports all of us, mitigates inequalities, and enables us to support each other. High quality childcare, for example, improves the well-being and opportunities of both children and parents; but free childcare is currently limited in hours and, for younger children, only available to the most disadvantaged. It is also of variable quality; the more deprived areas of the country have lower quality childcare.
Access to universal, free, high quality childcare would provide an equalizing infrastructure for all children across the country. This policy is being advocated by the new economics foundation, IPPR, and the Fabian Women’s Network, to name but a few. Giving all under-fives the same opportunities to develop, learn and play, investment in early years would see benefits now and for years to come.
Free high quality childcare would also enable women – who still do two hours more unpaid work every day than men – to remain in paid work. Giving women more free time, more flexibility and more security in the knowledge their children are being well looked after would give them much better choices about their work and time. Investment in early years would improve pay and working conditions for the many women who work in childcare too, would increase the status of the sector, and would help to break down the gendered division of labour in our society, providing a more diverse range of opportunities for both women and men.
There are also wide-ranging benefits that will accrue to society as a whole from investment in social infrastructure, which can foster a sense of shared responsibility, of solidarity and support. As Professor Sue Himmelweit of the Women’s Budget Group has argued, ‘making long-term investment plans in social infrastructure is just as important for the long term health of the country’ as investment in roads, railways and bridges.
Investing in the social infrastructure of this country, especially in childcare and early years education, would ease the crisis in living standards, tackle some of the root causes of inequality and create a fairer, more equal society for all. But with public spending expected to be down to 1948 levels by 2019, with those in power advocating austerity as necessary for the economic recovery in spite of evidence to the contrary, and with the crisis of living standards ever worsening, something must be done.
An alternative must be outlined and fought for. At the heart of this alternative vision lies the kind of society we want to create – a society that is more equal, that offers opportunities to all no matter their gender, their race or their class. It is time to consider a new social settlement that invests in the social as well as the physical infrastructure of this country; that seeks to rebuild and renew our responsibilities to each other and to future generations to come.
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