Free preschool instead of childcare centres

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The Dutch economy is growing faster than expected, but not as fast as its potential would indicate. That was the essence of the press conference that Statistics Netherlands held on the campus of Erasmus University Rotterdam last Thursday.

Why do we use that word to describe where we leave our little ones? Sandra Phlippen Chief Economist ABN AMRO

This underperformance is worse in almost every nearby country, even without considering data about the economic impact of the coronavirus and the nitrogen crisis. Part of the reason why the open economy of the Netherlands is able to weather adversity so well is its people: you and I and our considerable spending habits. Not that we are earning much more: in fact, in 2019 employers preferred to offer the certainty of a regular contract rather than paying a significantly higher hourly wage. However, the step from a flex contract for a few hours to regular employment opens up the door to financial changes that make a pay rise of a few percent pale by comparison: buying a car or a home, or eating out more often. And so consumers have kept the economy ticking over in spite of everything.

Is it enough? No, said Economy Minister Eric Wiebes at Thursday’s press conference. It’s not enough if we want to keep giving people in the Netherlands what they expect: good and affordable healthcare, a decent pension and access to education. If we want to keep the country happy, we will need to accelerate our growth to pay for it all, the minister argued. As a member of the panel, I started to rock back and forth in my chair. Here we go again, I thought: here comes the whip laying the blame for the economic underperformance across the shoulders of the women of the Netherlands who work part-time. And there it was: the ‘part-time problem’ was put forward as one of the reasons. Someone in the audience replied that childcare centres should be free.

But then Eric Wiebes came with a surprise twist (in my words): “Childcare centres? Childcare centres? Why do we call them childcare centres? It makes it sound like the shelters for asylum seekers or care centres for psychiatric patients. As if there is nowhere else for them to go. Why do we use that word to describe where we leave our little ones? ” I agreed. The word ‘childcare centre’ comes with a built-in feeling of guilt: “Wow, you put your kid in a childcare centre….?”

The minister continued with some scientific proof that going to a form of preschool between the ages of 2 and 4 is very important for children’s development. That it is in fact bad for them to be kept at home. A free preschool that offers a high standard of quality: if the Cabinet could pull that off, many part-timers would be happy to work a few more hours. It would become a positive choice for the child, rather than a financially incentivised ‘working is worthwhile’ policy. Because, dear Minister Wiebes, that is something that we prefer to decide for ourselves.

Every week, Sandra writes a newspaper column for daily newspaper AD (in Dutch only), which can also be read here.

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