“This time is spent eating, putting children to sleep, and changing diapers,” Ms. Côté reports. “He was just hanging out, waiting his turn.” So today she is back at work, but paying two babysitters with ECE training to look after her son, now 15 months old, at home.
The cost? More than $2,000 a month.
70,000 more working moms
Even limited spaces, though, have allowed Quebec to meet one major goal: to get moms working and lift families out of poverty. And that’s gone a long way toward paying for the system itself.
In 1997, women 25 to 44 in Quebec were less likely to be in the labour force than those of any province outside Atlantic Canada. Ten years later, their participation was among the highest in the nation – an about-face especially notable among those with children under 12.
The number of mothers with jobs went up across the country. But unlike places such as Newfoundland, where oil was fuelling some of those hires, Quebec employment rates aren’t tied to an obvious change in the job market. Quebec economists, such as Pierre Fortin, a professor at the University du Québec à Montréal, ascribe the boost to childcare. According to Dr. Fortin’s work, in 2008 alone, the program accounted for 70,000 newly employed moms.
Increasing the number of working moms is not only good for the labour force or women’s career aspirations. European studies also show that when household income is shared more evenly there’s better gender equity. (According to a study released this summer, happiness scores have risen in the province, too, for men as well as women.)
For Hortense Ngalula, a single mother originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, affordable care has meant the difference between improving her education and sitting around with few prospects. When she needed care for her six-month-old daughter, a social worker helped her find a spot at a Carrefour location. Now a toddler, the little girl is learning from trained Early Childhood Education workers who, as she gets older, will use a play-based curriculum to prepare her for school.
Ms. Ngalula, meanwhile, is about to finish the technical course she is taking and wants to become an administrative assistant. Without public care for her child, she says, “I don’t think I would have been able to leave the house.”
Quebec’s low-cost daycare has already changed the fortunes of many women like Ms. Ngalula. In its first decade, the percentage of working mothers rose 22 per cent. In that same period, the number of single parents on welfare was cut in half, and their after-tax income increased, on average, by 81 per cent. The past 16 years have also seen Quebec’s child poverty rate halved – and while other anti-poverty measures have contributed to this decline, affordable childcare is seen as the most significant.
The growing ranks of working mothers has produced a substantial economic payoff too. A 2011 study found that the benefits just from the increased employment of those with children under 4 – both through the extra tax they pay and the reduction in tax transfers and welfare payments they now require – recouped 48 per cent of Quebec’s childcare costs.
In a study he co-authored with two other economists, Dr. Fortin estimated that for every dollar spent on the program it brought back $1.05. Ottawa was a happy recipient as well: the federal government received an additional 44 cents on the dollar in tax transfers it was spared – “for nothing,” as he puts it.
Not just for the ‘poor’
Childcare outside the home has historically been a welfare service – a social support for poor mothers.
But research – certainly the best European examples – makes a case for a system that is offered to children from every income level. Good childcare helps middle-class parents reconcile career aspirations with family priorities. It also helps grow those families; when Quebec’s daycare program was launched, the birth rate, long a source of despair, began a steady ascent that has levelled off only recently.