Day care for non-working parents extendedThe government will increase free daycare services for some toddlers up to two years old from six hours and 45 minutes to eight hours a day to encourage more young Korean couples to have kids. The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced a new day care policy for young children on Tuesday in an attempt to raise the country’s dismal birthrate, which stood at 1.05 per woman last year.
Currently, couples in which one spouse doesn’t work can send children under two years old to day care centers free of charge for six hours and 45 minutes. Beyond that they are charged 4,000 won ($3.58) per hour. For couples in which both have full-time jobs, day care is free for children in the under-two age group for 12 hours a day.
The Park Geun-hye administration limited free day care for couples with one parent at home to make more room for children of parents who both worked.
“The day care policy [of the Park administration] was introduced to stop the phenomenon of families with stay-at-home parents sending their children to day care centers indiscriminately regardless of their needs,” said Chung Hyo-jung, president of the Korea Association of Child Care and Education.
The former administration’s approach to day care systems was influenced by data that showed that a high proportion of Korean toddlers are enrolled in day care - 52.6 percent of kids under the age of two last year, according to the welfare ministry. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends that figure should not exceed 30 percent. In 2015, the average weekly hours spent at day care centers by toddlers stood at 38 hours, eight hours more than the average among OECD nations.
The new measure that expands free day care even for non-working mothers could end up swelling the numbers at day care centers.
“Free day care has popularized the notion that everyone should send their children to day care because it’s free regardless of their different needs, leading to a surge of day care center use,” said Cho Eun-young, a professor of child welfare studies at Chungbuk University in Cheongju, North Chungcheong. “There is a tendency [among non-working mothers] to send their children to daycare centers because it’s free,” said Katherine Chang, a 32-year-old working mother of two sons aged seven months and three years. “I understand that in the case of the United States or Australia, parents pay a different charge for day care based on their income levels, and labor costs at daycare centers are high. Such factors dissuade parents from using daycare if it’s not necessary.”
Analysts say Korea should also introduce a system in which parents make payments of different amounts corresponding with their earnings instead of providing free day care paid for by taxpayers. “There are many limitations [to improve the quality of day care] because we are confined within the framework of free service,” said Kim Song-lee, researcher at the non-profit Seoul Foundation of Women & Family. “There isn’t so much the government can do to improve the system due to budgetary constraints.
“Solutions can be found by having parents make some payments corresponding with their needs. I think parents will be willing to do that if their needs are met.”
BY SHIN SUNG-SIK, KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]