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Debating how governments should support families – tax breaks versus child care versus baby bonus-style handouts – always gets personal. Cherie Blair, wife of the former British prime minister Tony Blair and a vocal advocate for universal child care, recently offended many stay-at-home mothers by proposing they should be offered apprenticeships to get them working. At a conference in England last month, an academic warned that "motherism" – the belief that mothers who don't work for pay are "stupid and lazy" – should be treated as seriously as racism. In Germany, a new family allowance has pitted parents at home against those at the office who can't find child care, because the government has so far failed to meet its promised deadline to create a daycare spot for every family who needs one.

But the better-mother debate is a tired distraction – one Canada can no longer afford. As economists, historians and child-development experts have convincingly argued, a family policy that includes affordable, accessible child care is not only a crucial ingredient for a healthy economy in an aging nation banking on the talents – and taxes – of the next generation. It makes society more equal by supporting poor families.

And yet, government policy still favours the two-parent home in which one salary – presumably dad's – covers the bill. But Canadian families don't live that reality any more. Only about 18 per cent of households have one parent who stays home. Almost the same number is headed by single parents. And even though two-thirds of mothers are now in the paid work force, the average income for young families has hardly changed, in real dollars, since 1976.

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Government and workplaces, says Lorna Turnbull, the dean of law at the University of Manitoba, carry on as though "the ideal worker is still a 1950s model of a man working full-time, with all the domestic aspects of his life supported by a wife at home. That model doesn't even work for men any more, but it especially doesn't work for women."

After studying the state of child care in Canada for a six-part Globe and Mail series, it's clear this approach is unsustainable. The forward-thinking family policy has to be gender-blind, assuming both sides of a couple will choose to maximize their earning power and ambitions, while making it possible for all families to balance the caregiving stages of life, particularly when their children are young and their budgets are tighter. Flexible workplaces do this. So generous parental leave and affordable, public child care. Nations that support families this way – such as Iceland, Finland and Sweden – land at the top of the World Economic Forum's annual gender-equity rankings. Their gaps between rich and poor are small, by global standards. Their citizens are among the world's happiest.

In Canada, however, the belief persists that "having children is a private consumption choice," says Turnbull, "and if you make that choice, just like if you go out and buy yourself a yacht, then the cost is yours."

The federal government declared in its October Throne Speech that it "understands the pressure facing families," and pointed to the Universal Child Care Tax Benefit, which gives households $100 a month for each child under age six. But that's a pittance when compared to the real cost of daycare and nowhere near enough to help parents give up work, which means taxpayers are essentially paying billions each year to give a pin-money bonus that creates no choice in child care.

Tax refunds for daycare expenses benefit wealthier families who pay more in income taxes – even though lower-income parents have similarly large bills for child care. Since many families can't get by for 12 months with one salary chopped roughly in half, Canada's parental leave benefits also favour affluent households in which one paycheque can carry most of the expenses. Once the deficit is eliminated, the Conservatives have promised to introduce income-splitting for families.

According to an analysis by Jonathan Kesselman, public policy professor at Simon Fraser University, the costly tax reform will mean big savings for the richest Canadian parents in which one partner stays at home, or works part-time. It won't help families scraping by on two relatively similar salaries, and it certainly won't make child care any cheaper.

Where does Vancouver single mom Sarah Perrin fit, for example, in the mix of a family policy that suggests $100 a month creates real options, where getting tax money back for daycare depends on how much you earn, and child-care subsidies fall well short of daycare bills? Until her eldest daughter started kindergarten, Perrin was paying more for child care for her two children than for her rent in subsidized housing. Her math was impossible: Those two essential expenses drained almost her entire budget. "I have gone so far into debt. I want to make a better life for my kids. But I am so trapped."

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With the right support, that trap may be temporary. But spending more upfront for payoff later requires seeing the long-term advantages – as Turnbull says, "looking over the working life rather than such small snapshots."

In Vancouver, Benjamin Ernst, the owner of Earnest Ice Cream, and Olive Dempsey, a sustainability program co-ordinator, are trying to have a child, even as they struggle with how they'll afford a family. Ideally, they'd both like to cut back on work hours. "Financially, I am not sure that's an option," says Dempsey. Without affordable daycare, Ernst says, "I don't see how we could have any more than one child and still maintain our careers."

Rather than sniping over "family values," Canada needs government policy that values all families. For young parents, on whom the country's fortunes will rest, it is, indeed, personal.

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