2011 / 5月
Chen Hsin-yi /tr. by Phil Newell
As long ago as a decade or more ago, the women's movement in Taiwan was already proposing a welfare policy based on combining "public caregiving" and "a democratic deliberative mechanism." For many years now the Peng Wan-Ru Foundation has been a laboratory for practical experiments toward this proposal, and has been a locomotive force in policy reform. They believe that the real key to solving the twin problems of a sharply declining birth rate and a rapidly aging population is for the government to provide care services "that are accessible and affordable to everyone." Such a policy would also be the bedrock for promoting gender equality and building a harmonious society.
In 1996, feminist activist Peng Wan-ru, a leading figure in the Democratic Progressive Party, was murdered. The case has never been solved. Her husband, National Taiwan Normal University professor Hung Wan-sheng, decided to establish a foundation with money that had been donated by the public, to transform tragedy into hope. In that era, when grassroots social movements were in full flight, the Peng Wan-Ru Foundation became a core base for action among community organizers and feminist activists.
Liu Yu-hsiu, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University and a program developer for the foundation, says that the concept of a universal care system is based on the Scandinavian model, continually refined and experimented with in accordance with the particular needs and conditions of Taiwan's society. Moreover, the foundation works to do research and development, and to disseminate information, well before the government has any concrete policy, so that when the time is ripe, they can promote their ideas as national policies.
Since the 1970s, building on the basis of the traditional "full employment" concept, Scandinavian countries developed a policy of universal-care welfare and services. The basic ideas are: First, men and women are equal. Women should have the right to work and achieve economic independence, while men should have the right to participate in childrearing. Secondly, society should provide adequate childcare measures, rather than leaving responsibility entirely with the family or with the marketplace. All children are entitled to a high quality of care and education from the very start of life.
Liu says that since developed countries have all had to confront low birthrates and aging populations, Taiwan could learn a lot from the Scandinavian model.
First, Scandinavian countries have both high birthrates (the figure has stabilized at about 1.9) and a high rate of participation by women in the workforce. This can be ascribed to the "generous support" given by Scandinavian countries to families with children.
Secondly, the policy design of binding together female employment and universal public childcare is the key to how the Scandinavian countries have been able to create a virtuous cycle. The jobs created have not been limited to making childcare a paying profession, but also include the fact that women who have children do not need to interrupt their careers, and there are even regulations that public childcare can only be enjoyed when both parents (or the sole parent) are in the workforce. This makes childcare a link in a proactive labor-market policy.
Peng Wan-Ru Foundation executive director Wang Huei-chu says that while the Scandinavian model provides the basic theory and direction, in all of its research and development programs the foundation follows a "one step at a time" and "learn by doing" approach, in order to adapt to Taiwan's situation.
Of all the know-how accumulated by the foundation, the most critical element is "financial design." Liu Yu-hsiu explains that the high tax rates in northern European countries are the foundation on which their universal welfare policies are constructed. But in Taiwan appropriations for social welfare are seriously inadequate, and the amount and types of the care services that the government can provide are very limited. Therefore the foundation has decided to transform the Scandinavian model of "using tax money to collectively buy care services" into "having the user pay the majority, with government appropriations in support." The evidence shows that this is more suited to Taiwan's situation and is the key to making progress.
Take for example the Wujia Community Autonomous Preschool established in a blue-collar neighborhood of Fengshan District in Kao-hsiung. The local government provided only the promise of a free space, but the foundation still went ahead with the plan because it wanted to prove that an affordable and high-quality preschool built on autonomous community mutual support could really succeed.
At the school, which has adopted a liberal and open policy, parents must organize an association and participate in school affairs, and moreover must agree to leave 15% of the 80 places for disadvantaged children to attend at reduced or no tuition. "It's like a big family where everybody helps out everybody else," says Wang Huei-chu, "It's always possible to put out a few more chopsticks on the dinner table for those in need."
Moreover, the foundation does more than just focus on the details of its programs; it also often looks at the big picture of national policy. Achievements thus far include the incorporation of after-school guidance into the Child and Youth Welfare Act in 2003, and the policy of babysitting management and subsidies, which went into effect in 2008.
As for current reforms to the childcare system, Liu Yu-hsiu says straight out that over the past decades, each wave of efforts to reform childcare has started off well-intentioned but has always ended up with "businesses protecting their own interests" and "government bureaucrats hoarding power."
For example, the programs that the government is coming up with now, like vouchers for preschool education or commissioning private preschools, are little more than big payouts made with the upcoming election in mind. They do nothing to change the actual situation in the childcare market of profits coming first. So long as the system remains one of families "purchasing" services from profit-making enterprises, you can be sure that expenditures will be huge and results paltry.
The foundation suggests that a democratic policy-making mechanism in which both government and civil society have rights be established, and that social consensus-building be continuous, as only then can a universal public care system really be developed, and the rights and interest of both the caregivers and those being cared for be protected.