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How Countries Around the World Support Working Moms and Dads


Parenting while holding down a job is no small feat. Yet, some countries seem to be getting it right when it comes to making this juggling act a bit easier. This article explores the world’s best countries for working parents and what sets them apart.

The Economic Calculus

Countries differ vastly in how much they spend on early childhood care and education. Take Iceland, for instance. The country allocates almost 1.8% of its GDP to this critical stage of development. This significant investment has made child care affordable for Icelandic parents, who spend just 5% of their income on it. Contrast this with the U.S., where only 0.3% of GDP goes to early childhood care, and parents fork over a staggering 19% of their income for the same services.

Investing in early childhood education isn’t just good for families—it’s also good economics. Canada, for example, committed $22 billion over five years to reduce early education and child care costs. Studies suggest that every dollar spent in this area could yield up to $2.80 in economic returns by enabling more parents to join or stay in the workforce.

Standout Countries

Iceland – A Nordic Model

Iceland has been leading in female labor force participation among countries monitored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As of the most recent data from 2021, over 82% of adult women in Iceland are part of the country’s labor force. This high number stands in stark contrast to other countries like the United States, where the rate is roughly around 68%.

One major contributing factor to Iceland’s impressive statistics is its substantial investment in early childhood education and care. According to OECD figures, Iceland spends nearly 1.8% of its GDP on this critical aspect of societal well-being. This financial commitment ensures that quality child care is not just a privilege for a few but is accessible and affordable for most families.

The return on this investment is evident in how little Icelandic parents spend on child care services. On average, they dedicate only about 5% of their earnings to this essential service. When child care is affordable, it becomes easier for both parents to remain in or rejoin the workforce, thus supporting a more diverse and robust labor market.

Beyond the numbers, there’s a cultural aspect at play. In Iceland, there’s a more balanced view of parenting responsibilities, and it’s socially acceptable for both parents to take an active role in child-rearing. This culture is likely supported and perhaps partially shaped by the nation’s policies, making it a self-reinforcing cycle.

Such policies don’t merely benefit individual families; they fortify the country’s economy by facilitating a high level of labor force participation. This is especially crucial in smaller economies like Iceland, where every individual’s contribution counts significantly.

By scrutinizing Iceland’s approach, other nations could glean valuable insights into how to better support working parents and, by extension, create stronger and more resilient economies.

Estonia and Germany – Guaranteed Child Care

Estonia – Early Assurance from 18 Months

In Estonia, the government has taken the responsibility of guaranteeing child care spots for children between the ages of 18 months and 7 years. This promise of availability ensures that parents don’t have to endure lengthy waiting lists or high-stress searches for reliable and quality care. This assurance can significantly ease the mental and emotional load on parents who might otherwise have to juggle work commitments with erratic or less reliable child care solutions.

The country’s investment in early childhood education is a calculated one. By ensuring children have access to educational settings from an early age, Estonia is laying the foundation for long-term societal benefit. In a more immediate sense, this policy allows parents—particularly women—to re-enter the workforce with a greater sense of security, knowing that their children are in a supportive environment.

Germany – Extended Care Through ‘Kita’

Germany’s approach to child care also comes with a government guarantee but extends this commitment even further. Known as “kita,” these early education and care programs often run through elementary school. In some German cities, the kita programs are even free, a boon for working parents concerned about balancing quality child care against its often exorbitant costs.

The availability of guaranteed child care spots through elementary school age creates a continuity of care that benefits both children and parents. Children experience stable, ongoing environments that contribute to their educational and emotional development. For parents, the long-term guarantee reduces the stress often associated with finding new child care solutions as children age out of earlier programs.

The Impact on Working Parents

What makes Estonia and Germany stand out is not merely the provision of child care but the assurance of its availability. This guarantee helps working parents to plan their careers better, without the looming uncertainty of child care falling through. In economic terms, this contributes to more stable and consistent labor force participation, particularly among women, which in turn benefits the economy at large.

Both countries serve as models for how thoughtful child care policies can have far-reaching positive implications for working parents and society. With guaranteed spots for children in professional care settings, parents in Estonia and Germany can navigate their work lives with one less significant worry on their minds.

Canada – Investing in the Future

Canada has made a significant investment in early education and child care, earmarking $22 billion over a five-year period. This financial commitment isn’t just a nod to the importance of early childhood education, but also a strategic move designed to make child care more affordable for families. By distributing these funds across provinces and territories, the Canadian government aims to create a uniform, high-quality standard of care that is accessible to a greater number of families.

Affordable child care has a direct correlation with labor force participation, especially among women. By lowering the cost barrier, the Canadian government is indirectly incentivizing more parents to stay in or re-enter the workforce. According to a 2019 survey from the Center for American Progress, parents with readily available and affordable child care options are more likely to maintain consistent employment. This not only benefits the immediate family unit but has a positive ripple effect on the economy.

Research cited by the Canadian government shows that every dollar spent on early childhood education can bring an economic return of up to $2.80. This multiplier effect occurs because more parents, particularly mothers, can contribute to the workforce, thereby boosting productivity, GDP, and tax revenue.

While some countries focus primarily on either quality or affordability, Canada aims to achieve a balance of both. The substantial budget not only targets the expansion of child care slots but also invests in the quality of child care education. This ensures that parents aren’t just getting more affordable options, but ones that offer developmental and educational benefits to their children.

New Zealand – Quality Over Quantity

New Zealand takes a different tack when it comes to child care and early childhood education by prioritizing quality over affordability. While the programs can be expensive for parents, they are highly regarded for the educational value they offer. The country employs a comprehensive curriculum, often inspired by child development theories and pedagogical methods, to ensure that children in these programs receive an enriching experience that prepares them for primary education and beyond.

New Zealand’s focus on quality isn’t just a selling point for local families but has gained international recognition. This emphasis likely contributes to the country’s high scores in Bloomberg’s report on the quality of child care programs. Such high standards are maintained through strict licensing and regular inspections, ensuring that child care centers meet and often exceed expectations for safety, learning, and overall well-being.

The high quality of child care in New Zealand also plays a part in its relatively low gender pay gap, which stands at just 5% according to PwC’s Women in Work Index. A high-quality child care system indirectly supports working mothers by providing them with reliable and enriching options for their children, allowing them to maintain their careers and, therefore, contributing to a more equitable labor force. The low gender pay gap signifies not just equal pay but also suggests a more level playing field in career opportunities for women, making the country attractive for families where both parents are working professionals.

While New Zealand excels in providing high-quality early childhood education, the challenge remains the affordability of these programs for the average family. However, the higher costs are often seen as an investment in children’s future, providing them with a strong educational foundation.

The U.S. Struggle – A Tale of Scarcity and Burnout

One of the most immediate challenges facing working parents in the United States is the prohibitive cost of child care. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), U.S. parents, on average, spend roughly 19% of their earnings on child care costs. This percentage is staggeringly high compared to other developed countries like Iceland, where parents only spend about 5% of their earnings on child care. These soaring costs mean that for many families, particularly those with lower incomes, quality child care becomes a luxury rather than a standard provision.

Another striking feature is the low level of public investment in early childhood education and care. The United States spends only about 0.3% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on these vital services, according to OECD data. This lack of investment stands in sharp contrast to countries like Iceland and Canada, which allocate significantly more of their GDP toward child care and early education. The result is a limited supply of affordable, high-quality care options, further exacerbating the financial strain on families.

The high cost and low availability of child care are contributing factors to increasing rates of burnout among parents, especially mothers, who traditionally have been more likely to take on child-rearing responsibilities. The lack of accessible and affordable child care services forces many parents to make a difficult choice: to continue working and bear the brunt of the child care expenses or to leave the workforce temporarily or permanently to care for their children. This phenomenon has been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic, pushing many parents out of the labor force, thereby affecting household incomes and, in the long term, economic productivity.

The ripple effects of this situation extend beyond the immediate family. When parents, particularly mothers, exit the workforce due to the prohibitive costs of child care, it not only impacts family income but also has broader societal implications. It affects gender equality in the workplace and could contribute to a ‘brain drain,’ where skilled and educated individuals are not contributing to the workforce to their full potential.

The child care crisis in the United States is a multifaceted problem that requires a comprehensive solution. Rising costs, parental burnout, and the withdrawal from the labor market are interconnected issues that feed into a vicious cycle, making it an urgent matter that needs to be addressed not just for the well-being of individual families, but for the broader health of the American economy and society.

The United States is facing a challenging landscape when it comes to child care and its impact on working parents. High costs, coupled with limited public investment, contribute to a stressful environment that is pushing many parents out of the labor force, with far-reaching social and economic implications.

Investing in Families is Investing in the Future

The well-being of working parents varies dramatically around the globe. Countries that prioritize and invest in early childhood education and care aren’t just aiding families; they’re building stronger, more resilient economies. As policy decisions around child care continue to evolve, it’s important for all nations to consider what they can do to make life better for working parents—and ultimately, for everyone.

Written by
Leo Caldwell

Leo is a seasoned journalist and a father of two who writes about the evolving role of dads, co-parenting, and work-life balance. He explores the complexities of modern family life, including financial planning and maintaining strong relationships with extended family.

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