Care concerns us all. It creates the fabric that holds our societies together and brings our generations together. Throughout our lives, we and our loved ones will either need or provide care.
With creches and kindergartens temporarily closed, and the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on our older people, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of having robust formal care services to ensure continuity of care. By exposing its pre-existing structural weaknesses, the
pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the need to improve the resilience of our care systems. It also had a significant impact in terms of mental health problems and resulting care needs to be addressed. All of this is particularly crucial for the
well-being of care receivers and care givers, for women’s participation in the labour market and the achievement of work-life balance.
High-quality care services have clear benefits for all ages. Children need care to develop their cognitive, language and physical skills and competences. Participation in early childhood education has a positive impact on their development, boosts their employment opportunities later in life, their ability to lead fulfilling lives and careers and helps reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion. As such, it contributes to breaking the cycle of inequality and disadvantages. Quality early childhood education and care promotes healthy and active lifestyles early in life, which has a positive impact throughout adulthood all the way to old age. At the same time, high-quality and affordable long-term care empowers older people by helping them to maintain their autonomy and to live in dignity. This is particularly important in a context of demographic change, where Europeans are living longer and healthier lives, and the demand for care is increasing exponentially. Active ageing policies, as well as early intervention, health promotion and disease prevention can further support longer independent, healthy and active living and delay the onset of care needs.
Despite the clear benefits of high-quality care services, for many people they are still not affordable, available or accessible. Around a third of children below the age of 3 and close to 90% of children aged between 3 and compulsory school age are in early childhood education and care, but still many parents are not able to enrol their children because the services are simply not available, or they are too expensive.
Inadequate care services have a disproportionate impact on women as supplementary or informal care responsibilities still fall predominantly on them and this affects their work-life balance and options to take on paid work.
Good working conditions in the care sector are vital to the resilience and attractiveness of the sector, and for gender equality. Women make up 90% of the care workforce, often in low paid, precarious jobs.
The inadequacy of care systems has an economic cost and undermines the sector’s potential to create jobs. Investment in care services helps more women to join the labour market and yields more revenues for public budgets.
This strategy sets an agenda to improve the situation for both carers and care receivers. It calls for boosting access to quality, affordable and accessible care services and improving working conditions and work-life balance for carers. It will help making the principles on access to good quality and affordable care of the European Pillar of Social Rights a reality and contribute to achieving the headline targets on employment and poverty reduction for 2030 across the EU, welcomed by EU leaders at the Porto Summit in May 2021 and endorsed by the European Council.
Two proposals for Council Recommendations are at the centre of this strategy: on the revision of the Barcelona targets on early childhood education and care, and on access to affordable high-quality long-term care. They provide policy frameworks for reforms and investments at national, regional and local levels. Both cover adequacy, availability and quality of care as well as the working conditions of carers. This Communication sets out further supportive actions at European level and calls for action at national level.
2.1. EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND CARE
Principle 11 of the European Pillar of Social Rights recognises children’s right to affordable early childhood education and care that is of good quality. The Council Recommendation on high-quality early childhood education and care systems supports the Member States in their efforts to improve access to and the quality of early childhood education and care, and encourages them to adopt a quality framework. The EU strategy on the rights of the child and the European Child Guarantee form a new comprehensive EU policy framework to protect the rights of all children and secure access to basic services for children in vulnerable situations or from disadvantaged backgrounds. Specifically, the European Child Guarantee aims to ensure that all children in Europe at risk of poverty or social exclusion have free and effective access to high-quality early childhood education and care. It requires Member States to draw up national action plans to put these aims into practice. As part of the European Semester, the EU monitors progress on early childhood education and care, the link between childcare and women’s participation in the labour market and progress on social inclusion, notably for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It supports Member States’ reforms and investment through EU funds.
In 2002, the European Council set the Barcelona targets, which aim to remove disincentives to women joining the labour market by increasing childcare provision. In the last 20 years, considerable progress has been made and the initial targets were on average reached at EU level. However, large differences remain across Member States with many not having reached the targets, in particular for the youngest group of children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Commission is therefore proposing to revise the Barcelona targets to set new ambitious yet realistic targets and to stimulate upward convergence across the EU, ensuring real progress in all Member states and regions.
The proposed revision of the Barcelona targets adds new dimensions: 1) the participation of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and 2) the time-intensity of participation in early childhood education and care (i.e. the number of hours attended per week).
These new aspects are particularly important for children in vulnerable situations or from disadvantaged backgrounds and their families. This notably includes children with disabilities, children at risk of poverty or social exclusion, children from homeless families, Roma children10 and those from minority groups, children with a migrant background, refugee children and children fleeing armed conflict. Encouraging participation in early childhood education and care is in the best interest of the child in terms of their future life outcomes, to promote social inclusion and to break the cycle of disadvantage. At the same time, mothers in low-income households may face higher barriers to find a job if they have a low level or obsolete professional skills or experience. They can also face deterrents to (re)entering employment, such as relatively high childcare costs and potential disincentives from the tax-benefit system.
One way to ensure adequate provision of early childhood education and care is by establishing a legal entitlement to it, by which public authorities guarantee a place for all children whose parents demand it. In most Member States, such legal entitlement exists, but the starting age varies significantly. Ideally, there should be no gap between the end of adequately paid family leave and a legal entitlement to a place in early childhood education and care.
Investing in the care sector would help ensure that informal care is a choice rather than a necessity.