Universal child care is a three-way economic stimulus program – it helps parents work (and reduces poverty), directly creates jobs for early childhood educators, and, if the early learning is good enough, gives a boost to the next generation of skilled labour.
“The question is if you invest $1 in this space, do you get $1 back?” asks Mr. Alexander. “The answer is yes.”
But until the returns start rolling back because working mothers are paying more income tax, and fewer families are on welfare – which has happened in Quebec since it launched its program in 1997 – the upfront investment has made politicians skittish. Quebec now spends $2.2-billion annually on child care; a national program, similar to Quebec’s, would cost Canadians an additional $11-billion a year, according to an analysis at UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership, conducted by Ms. Anderson and Prof. Kershaw. That analysis assumed child care for about $10-a-day (and free to families earning less than $40,000).
Those are big numbers, to be sure, but child care is one of those go-big-or-stay-home challenges. And dripping cash into a poorly managed, market-based system hasn’t worked – it’s led to high fees over all, an increase in expensive for-profit care and too much unlicensed home daycare of questionable quality. That’s because early learning – when done properly and at a cost parents can afford – is not profitable.
So far, provinces have tried to solve the child-care issue by expanding school into younger ages.
But that also adds a new complication: Older children are the best deal for daycares because child-staff ratios can be lower – so four-year-olds subsidize the more expensive two-year-olds. Without them, either the government kicks in more money or parent fees go up.
To run its full-day kindergarten, Ontario had to hire early childhood educators – that means daycares lost some of their best staff, in an industry already struggling with high turnover and shortages.
Quebec’s case has demonstrated, however, that child care takes long years to get right. Even with enough $7-a-day spots for 50 per cent of children under the age of five (twice as many as the country as whole), there are still parents who can’t get a space. David Kaiser and his wife Loree Tamanaha for instance, didn’t land a spot at their neighbourhood’s non-profit centre – even though they jumped on a list when Dr. Tamanaha was five months’ pregnant – until they had gone through two other options: first a nanny, then a private centre, both at much higher costs. “[The non-profit centres] are the cheapest daycare, but it’s perceived by everyone I’ve ever met as the quality option, the desirable option,” Mr. Kaiser said. When a spot finally opened up, however, they felt it was too stressful for their daughter to move yet again.
For the most part, however, governments have balked at a large-scale program, publicly planned and managed, that sets low flat fees.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark, for instance, has said the province can’t afford $10-a-day care. Part of the problem, she concedes, is that “it’s hard to marshall wide-scale political support … because the parents who need child care are mostly parents with children under 6, and once people’s children get into school, it’s easy for people to forget how difficult those years are.”
Says Mr. Alexander at TD Bank: “The problem from a political point of view is that the benefits [of child-care spending] compound over the life of a child, and not within an electoral term.”
A main goal of the Generation Squeeze program is to get more young people thinking about the double standard of being expected to raise families while working to support an aging population without their fair share of public dollars.
“We get the message that motherhood is a sacred trust,” says Ms. Cousineau, “and then we hear simultaneously from a lot of people that, ‘You make the choice to have children, you bear the cost.’”
For many, that cost has become too high – for too little – despite those $100 monthly cheques from Ottawa.
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With a report from Kim Mackrael in Ottawa and Justine Hunter in Victoria