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A three year old reads a book at a Calgary daycare.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Five months before a federal election where childcare will be a key issue, there is little comparative long-term data on the costs of raising a child.

A briefing note prepared for Finance Minister Joe Oliver, made public through a CBC Access to Information request, says the cost of raising children increased at the same pace as the rate of inflation between 1998 and 2013. The conclusion was based on data from only Manitoba, with costs broken down for each year of a child's life up to 18. Expenses for postsecondary education were not included in the analysis, and childcare costs are set to zero for children older than 11, because they can then legally stay home alone.

The document acknowledges that because it focuses on data from just one province, "it fails to characterize the, perhaps substantial, heterogeneity in child-related costs across the country." It also says because childcare costs are often higher in urban areas, the calculations "could be considered an underestimate of the costs of raising children in Canada in this context."

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Childcare costs are poised to be a major issue in the next federal election. The Conservative government has expanded the Universal Child Care Benefit, while the Liberals have proposed to increase the Canada Child Benefit and the NDP wants to boost federal investment in childcare by $5-billion over eight years.

Canada has no national childcare program, and approaches to childcare support vary by province. Manitoba had the second-lowest average monthly rates for full-day daycare in 2012, at $631 per month for infants and $431 per month for toddlers. Ontario's costs were highest, at more than $1,000 for infants and $925 for toddlers. Quebec, which invested $2.2-billion a year in its childcare strategy, employed a flat-rate system where daycare spots could go for just $7 per day provincewide. The province has since introduced a sliding scale.

Asked for comment Tuesday on the Department of Finance analysis, a spokesperson said the government "is interested in better understanding the financial situation and cost of living of Canadian families."

Mowat Centre policy director Sunil Johal said the costs of raising children in Canada can be difficult to pin down. While studies have been conducted on childcare costs, the scope of the data they collect varies – some focus specifically on daycare costs, while others take a broader approach and incorporate overall costs of adding a child to a family. The costs of unlicensed daycares or having extended family members look after kids also makes analysis more complicated.

"It's a classic example in the challenge of policy making where we can't all agree what the problem is," Mr. Johal said. He added that he doesn't believe reliable assessments of childcare needs and the success of government policies are currently in place, and there isn't enough data to make comparisons about costs over time.

"That's one of those things where the federal government could take a leadership role in terms of gathering that data on what the [childcare] costs are: how they're changing over time, especially more at the local and community level."

Mr. Johal says that, anecdotally, childcare costs appear to be going up, but he isn't aware of long-term studies that might shed light on the trend.

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