Expected Child Care Program Raises Hopes and Concerns

Universal child care announcement likely in throne speech, but research points to problems in Quebec example
September 1, 2020 Updated: September 2, 2020

Support for a universal child care plan has been voiced by both the minority Liberal government and the NDP. Child care advocates welcome the news, but the approach and expenditure also have critics.

Morna Ballantyne, executive director of advocacy group Child Care Now, told The Epoch Times that child care is on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s radar.

“There were commitments made in the 2019 election by the Liberal Party, and there were also big promises made by the NDP. And given the minority situation of the Liberals, we may very well see something in the throne speech and in the next budget. We’re cautiously optimistic,” she said.

Female participation in the workforce fell by 1.5 million in the first two months of the pandemic, according to a study by the Royal Bank of Canada. At the end of March, Child Care Now launched a “Child Care for All” campaign. In April, four child care advocates issued a report that called for more collaboration among all levels of government and urged the creation of a federal child care secretariat.

“There’s been a long-standing lack of regulated child care,” Ballantyne says. “It’s very expensive and there needs to be much more government attention paid to the quality of the programs.”

In the 2017 federal budget, the Liberals committed $7 billion over the next 10 years to child care. The pandemic response included $625 million to fund more child care spaces as part of a $19 billion transfer to the provinces announced this July.

Ballantyne wants the federal government to give $2 billion to address the current child care shortfall, with amounts rising by an additional $2 billion annually to build capacity.

She says the federal government should negotiate agreements with the provinces to meet certain benchmarks on a timetable. The agreements should also include monitoring to assess the effectiveness of the tax dollars used.

“Nobody knows right now [the cost] to have affordable, high-quality, accessible child care in Canada … because there’s so many variables in making that calculation. What we do know is that we need a lot more public money. We need at least $10 billion, possibly more, on an annual basis.”

Peter Jon Mitchell, the acting program director for Cardus Family, says this approach has problems.

“One of the challenges of funding child care directly is that it funds spaces, it doesn’t fund children. So even when those spaces go unfilled, money is still directed to unfilled spaces,” Mitchell says.

“It funnels a tremendous amount of money into one or two forms of care, primarily centre-based care. So it really doesn’t leave a lot of options on the table for parents who might choose other forms of care, or [none].”

In 2019, Statistics Canada reported that about 60 percent of children under 6 had had non-parental child care within the previous three months. For these 1.4 million children, daycare was the most commonly used type of arrangement, used by 52 percent of the children, followed by care provided by a non-parental relative, at 26 percent, and care in a family child care home, at 20 percent.

“We know from that same study that [parents] use those forms of care for various reasons, the top reasons being location, the characteristics of a caregiver, the hours of operation. So I think the best option is to put that money back in the hands of parents to allow them to make the best decisions,” Mitchell says.

Quebec launched a universal child care system in 1997 that cost parents only $5 per day per child; that rose to $7 a day in 2004 and then to $7.30 in 2014. Public costs have grown even more. A 2015 study published on ScienceDirect, an online platform for peer-reviewed literature, showed that regulated child care places in Quebec rose from 78,864 in 1997 to 245,107 in 2012, while provincial subsidies rose from $288 million in 1996-97 before the program began to $2.2 billion in 2011-12.

A 2019 study in the American Economic Journal showed that young children in Quebec’s government-subsidized child care experienced “a large decline in measured non-cognitive skills.” “At older ages, program exposure is associated with worsened health and life satisfaction, and increased rates of criminal activity. Increases in aggression and hyperactivity are concentrated in boys, as is the rise in crime rates,” the authors wrote.

The findings are linked to the lower quality of care in the government-run program. It is not clear how a federal program would avoid similar problems. In mid-August, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said in a CBC interview that “we are looking at ways to directly support women … on the barriers to employment, and I think of child care in particular.”

Qualtrough offered no specifics and said it would be unwise for her to “scoop the prime minister” ahead of the throne speech after Parliament returns on Sept. 23.

The participation rate of women aged 15 years and over in the labour market, which includes those who were either working or looking for work, dropped from 61.2 percent in February to 55.5 percent in April—the lowest level since 1986, according to Statistics Canada. The rate rebounded to a near-normal level of 59.4 percent in July.